When novelists attack
November 22, 2007 10:50 AM   Subscribe

Shame on him for saying it, and shame on us for tolerating it. In an article in Monday's Guardian, the writer Ronan Bennett argued that the lack of a popular outcry against Martin Amis' remarks about Islam (covered previously) represents a cultural failure that ought to shame us. Yesterday, Christopher Hitchens and Ian McEwan wrote attacking Bennett and defending Amis. Perhaps they ought to have deployed a slideshow.
posted by hydatius (48 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
shame on them all...beware of all peoples wearing funny hats
posted by Postroad at 10:52 AM on November 22, 2007


Did we tolerate it? I thought we took Amis down on that one.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:21 AM on November 22, 2007


Thanks for posting this. Amis got a very easy ride for saying something completely indefensible, and even now, we see, people leap to his aid. But Bennett nails it.
posted by tiny crocodile at 11:31 AM on November 22, 2007


I think this quote from the Crooked Timber thread says it all:

Why do so many professedly manly men incessantly insist the rest of us share their deepest fears?
posted by creasy boy at 11:33 AM on November 22, 2007


Can someone explain to me what's the deal with Londoners freaking out over Islam?

Like I'm from Toronto and we have the largest Muslim population in North America but it isn't seen as "an issue", and statistically, Muslims in Canada feel less hostility and more satisfied especially compared to Britain and Europe.
posted by bobo123 at 11:41 AM on November 22, 2007


seconding Astro Zombie, his intellectual lazyness and subsequent craven and self-serving explicitation have completely undermined his contributuons to civil society, or as he likes to call it- "civilised" society.
posted by Wilder at 11:46 AM on November 22, 2007


Well bobo123, I would have thought the July 7th bombings would have had a lot to do with it.....

It's ok for people in the UK to be afraid because of what's happened. It's not ok for supposedly intellgent people to advocate the harrassment of innocents as a response to that fear.
posted by tiny crocodile at 11:48 AM on November 22, 2007


"The Chinese: a great bunch of lads."
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 11:55 AM on November 22, 2007


You know, I consider myself decently well read for 22, but I've barely heard of Amis, and then only in the context of remarks like these. I looked at Wikipedia and still didn't quite get it...is there some sort of essay explaining how important he is and why people listen to him that I could read?
posted by StrikeTheViol at 11:58 AM on November 22, 2007


statistically, Muslims in Canada feel less hostility and more satisfied especially compared to Britain and Europe.

I think that's the point. If there were thousands of Canadians Muslims attending radical mosques and plotting attacks against Canada, you might not feel so laid-back about them.

Bennett's article starts off on a profoundly stupid note. He uses what is rapidly becoming a very lame rhetorical trick of substituting other groups' names for the one in question, but just ends up making Amis's point for him when he writes:

Or this, the same speaker again: "I just don't hear from moderate Judaism, do you?"


Well, yes, we do hear from moderate Judaism, all the time. Jewish extremism, while unpleasant if you happen to live in Hebron, does not pose a threat to anyone in Europe, while Muslim extremism obviously does. Does Bennett really think he's being clever? Because he just reinforced exactly what's different about European Muslims that makes them a legitimate target of increased surveillance and worry.
posted by Dasein at 12:01 PM on November 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


that Amis rant on the brown-skinned infidels is quite ugly but nothing special, as it is the usual right winger's bullshit -- hardly news in a world that's full of xenophobes. Amis is a xenophobe who writes novels for a living, that's the only thing that distinguishes his bigoted rants from those of some random drunk at your local bar.

but what is instead inexcusable is that major news outlets still have the chutzpah to publish somebody who has been proven so obscenely wrong about Iraq and Bush's various liberticidal endeavors as Hitchens has been -- they just publish him as if nothing has happened, despite the fact that he's been one of Bush's most bloodthirsty media cheerleaders
posted by matteo at 12:11 PM on November 22, 2007


Can someone explain to me what's the deal with Londoners freaking out over Islam?

We are? News to me.
posted by influx at 12:13 PM on November 22, 2007


Well, yes, we do hear from moderate Judaism, all the time.

We also hear from moderate Islam, too. Which I think was the point (though I agree that the rhetorical trick is getting tired).

Can someone explain to me what's the deal with Londoners freaking out over Islam?

I'm not so sure that they do. After the London bombings, the strongest, angriest, most Amis-like responses I read came from people local to me (New Zealand). My UK friends seemed quite capable of making the distinction between Muslim terrorists and the other billion or so Muslims who aren't terrorists - probably because they all know Muslims through work or school or their community. I haven't lived in London for a while though, so maybe I'm misreading the mood over there. Would anyone local care to chime in?
posted by Infinite Jest at 12:15 PM on November 22, 2007


~~~~(((~~~ ~~~)))~~~~

sorry, musta been the broccoli. . .
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 12:16 PM on November 22, 2007


Can someone explain to me what's the deal with Londoners freaking out over Islam?

Not all of us are. I would say that London's response to the 7 July attacks was pretty mild. London has long-standing experience of being a terror target, and we all knew that an attack was a strong possibility, and that the Tube was the obvious target.

It's not ok for supposedly intellgent people to advocate the harrassment of innocents as a response to that fear.

He didn't advocate it, he confessed to feeling an urge towards advocating it. Expressed differently, his contribution could have been brave and valuable, but he was amazingly complacent in the way he expressed himself. I really like Amis, and one of the things I value about him is that he comes out and says what he thinks, which is valuable even if I disagree strongly with what he says. I'm really disappointed in him over this, though. Although it is important to restate that he wasn't advocating anything, there was an unmistakeable ugliness in what he said that I really think he does not really feel - it was lazy common-room contrarianism.

I was pleased to see Ian McEwan stepping in because McEwan is rather more sensitive to the issues involved and Amis's own handling of the matter has made things worse. The Bennett article surprised me - not because of its content, with which I mostly agree, but because of the space devoted to it. It was an op-ed blown hugely out of proportion (four pages of G2), and this greatly weakened it for me, as it gave Bennett room to overstate his case.

By "overstating his case", I mean this: Amis's feelings, urges, are sadly widespread on the left (and endemic on the right, of course). On the left, we need a really open and sensible debate about it, about how to overcome the fact that a good portion of informed and uninformed opinion acrossthe political spectrum now views a sizeable portion of the British population as alien and hostile, and is prepared to countenance alienating and hostile action against this minority. On the left, it is not a useful response to blanket all this opinion with the racism accusation and ignore it. Certainly there is a lot of bigotry and irrational fear in play, but there are also fears about how British Islam is coping with the national, secular, tolerant, multicultural and multifaith progressive project. Amis could have helped this debate and he fucked his chance. Bennett then took the easy route of giving him a verbose kicking, which also failed to move things along. It's really distressing to see what is an essential debate on the left distracted by this ugly Punch & Judy show.
posted by WPW at 12:24 PM on November 22, 2007 [4 favorites]


StrikeTheViol: ... is there some sort of essay explaining how important he is and why people listen to him that I could read?

Here's an essay by John Banville in the New York Review of Books.
Amis's decision to do his own kind of letting rip was a large one, and must have taken a deal of courage. It won him a new freedom, and a reputation as England's most ambitious, most exciting, and, at times, most controversial novelist. A number of younger writers saw in him an example of how to escape the crabbed confines of English letters, and sought to write with a similar freedom, irreverence, and energy. Money [published in 1984] did for the writers of the 1980s what Lucky Jim had done for their counterparts a generation earlier.
Banville describes Amis's style:
Amis's observing eye is constantly abulge with amazement at the wickedness and folly of his fellow human beings. He looks upon the world with incredulous surprise, like a man stumbling befuddled out of a dim restaurant into the acid sunlight and traffic roar of a summer afternoon in a strange city. For Amis, something always seems just to have happened, something not quite identifiable yet very bad. Or if it has not already happened, it is surely about to.
An example of Amis's writing: Career Move, which imagines a world in which screenwriters and poets have changed places.
posted by russilwvong at 12:38 PM on November 22, 2007


I am quite bored of this whole thing.

But I'm with WPW on this in that He didn't advocate it, he confessed to feeling an urge towards advocating it And they really are not the same thing.

Hitchens putit similarly in the harshness Amis was canvassing was not in the least a recommendation, but rather an experiment in the limits of permissible thought. As he once wrote in another connection: "What am I to do with thoughts like these?"

So he expressed it in a way that was unclear to many people. And then was high handed about it because he's a bit of an elitist. That's it. I'm pretty sure there's nothing more (of interest) to say on the matter.
posted by rhymer at 12:40 PM on November 22, 2007


> represents a cultural failure that ought to shame us.

There's all kinds of stuff that ought to shame us, somewhat, but don't, much. Welcome to monkeyland. Now GTF out of here, you're the wrong kind of monkey.
posted by jfuller at 12:43 PM on November 22, 2007


I used to be a huge fan of Amis' writing. I've seen him speak, and found him charming and quite funny too - but around the time of The Information it seemed to me like he no longer felt he had anything to prove, and the writing really suffered as a consequence. Or maybe his editors backed off or something, I don't know. The writing certainly seemed suddenly bloated in any case.

He seems to becoming more and more of a blowhard as he gets older and it saddens me. I also think that oftentimes when people attack him, they're really attacking the father as much as the son. But in this case he does certainly a sharp reprimand. He's got his foot just about wedged in there at this point.
posted by stinkycheese at 1:11 PM on November 22, 2007


he certainly deserves a sharp reprimand
posted by stinkycheese at 1:12 PM on November 22, 2007


one of the things I value about him is that he comes out and says what he thinks, which is valuable even if I disagree strongly with what he says

Really? What if he thinks "black people are dumb" or "Jews are greedy and power-mad"? What's so valuable about coming out with bigoted tripe? And spare me the careful hair-splitting about how he wasn't advocating, he was investigating, he was fucking adumbrating... I don't see how anyone can read the collection of quotes Bennett assembles and not realize Amis has a serious problem with Islam and Muslims.

I am quite bored of this whole thing.

Easy to be bored when it's not you getting looked at askance, barred from flights, and/or getting shat on by the likes of Martin Amis. Lots of people were bored by civil rights back in the '60s, too.
posted by languagehat at 2:01 PM on November 22, 2007 [5 favorites]


Amis has finally found the perfect target-- one that his friends at dinner parties give him a wink and a nod and say "you're right, keep saying it." One that if its extreme edges speaks out against him, only confirms what he's saying and whose moderates have nothing to gain by engaging him.

He's confused his garden-variety xenophobia and racism for something dangerous and profound. He's getting more attention for himself (and if there's one thing MA has sought his entire career, it's attention for his alleged brilliance) then ever and clearly relishing his role as a "truth-teller".

It's similar to the Anti-semitism which has reared its head at various times in Britain and other places-- you wouldn't think intelligent people would be drawn into it, but they are, and they become lightening rods for those who secretly agree but think that the speaker's couched racism makes it all acceptable.
posted by cell divide at 2:49 PM on November 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


Shame on him for saying it, and shame on us for tolerating it.

I wasn't aware that decrying something in print, in the same newspaper where it occurred, was tolerating it. I think Bennett is using that peculiar form of the word "us" that actually means "you". Unless he's offering to share, which is big of him because I'll tell you, my shame was too great a burden for me to shoulder alone and I hadn't even read the articles, much less tolerated them. Still, can I have some of that delicious shame too?
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:08 PM on November 22, 2007


"whatever" to him for saying it, and bravo to us for tolerating it. liberal political correctness is NOT the new fascism, no matter what you may think. he can say what he likes, and fuck your intolerance in the name of tolerance very much.
posted by quonsar at 3:19 PM on November 22, 2007 [2 favorites]


"The speaker was Martin Amis and, yes, the quotations have been modified, with Asians, Blacks and Irish here substituted for Muslims"

Sorry, but criticising a religion is not tantamount to racism. Especially when the author makes it clear that he is not particularly well disposed toward any religion. One's religious beliefs are a choice, whether their possessor is aware of this or not.
posted by Manjusri at 3:49 PM on November 22, 2007 [3 favorites]


As far as I can tell Amis was admitting, more or less, a knee-jerk response to certain fanatical Muslims and their actions. As a New Yorker I will admit to dark thoughts about the Islamic world in general after the attacks here. Isn't it sort of human nature to be afraid of people who are attacking you and wish your death, and then to latch on to superficial characteristics they have and also be afraid of other people who share those characteristics?

Admittedly this isn't something I have been following closely, but Bennet's response seems very over the top and weirdly unforgiving of how people actually are. Of course we all do have "our little prejudices," and it's our job to work out when we're rationally responding to something and when we're letting those prejudices have their way with us.

Furthermore, it seems self-evident that many Muslim societies are pretty screwed-up and many Muslims in Western societies are looking for changes that those societies might find unacceptable. Us Westerners should be thinking about why these problems exist and how to solve them rather than about how to exclude Muslims or fight them. I think an honest analysis of these problems might reveal some uncomfortable truths about our own societies, governments, and strategies for dealing with immigration.

Both Hitchens and Amis are talented writers but I think it's pretty clear that Amis is talking about the human condition while Hitchens is letting himself believe that his own knee-jerk responses are good policy recommendations.
posted by lackutrol at 3:54 PM on November 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


languagehat: Really? What if he thinks "black people are dumb" or "Jews are greedy and power-mad"? What's so valuable about coming out with bigoted tripe?

But he didn't say those things, or anything equivalent. Nor would he. Like him or not, he's an important cultural commentator (I don't know about the States, but he certainly is here) and his disregard for the conventions of left and right has in the past been a very important part of that.

And spare me the careful hair-splitting about how he wasn't advocating, he was investigating, he was fucking adumbrating... I don't see how anyone can read the collection of quotes Bennett assembles and not realize Amis has a serious problem with Islam and Muslims.

Fine, hair-splitting. Consider yourself spared. I'm not defending Amis's remarks. It was a stupid thing to say. It's a stupid thing to think, for that matter. He does seem to have a "problem" with Islam, but I don't think it's racism. I think it's an easy stab at edgy contrarianism, blended with some elitism and a sense of cultural superiority that no doubt contains a bit of prejudice and a bit of silly fear. Reading Amis's writing about the Holocaust, and his 1985 writing about AIDS, suggests that he is keenly aware of the evils of prejudice and persecution, and feels great sympathy for the plight of despised minorities. What makes that writing especially powerful is because he identifies the prejudices that give rise to persecution within himself, examines them, looks in the mirror. I hope that this is the path he takes here. He needs to, if he's to retain his status.

One of the things that really makes the argument ugly, however, is the whiff of the pyre that surrounds it. I think a lot of people a relishing the chance to lay into Amis, and aren't going to let this one pass. And there's the televangelist piety of pieces like Bennett's (that "shame on us" - what us?), and the fact that Amis's loudest detractors are acting as if anyone who isn't attacking him is with him. "There's no time for parsing, or debate! The kindling is lit! You're with us or against us!" - that's as ugly as Amis's remark, because this is the time for debate, long and serious debate with pitchforks left in the barn.
posted by WPW at 4:08 PM on November 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


Easy to be bored when it's not you etc. etc.

Cool, languagehat, I just love your little insights.

Last time we discussed this, you told me I loved Martin Amis.
Now I'm insensitive (and probably borderline racist if I read your implication correctly) because I'm bored of what one particular British writer said being raked over and discussed in pretty much exactly the same way for the millionth time many, many months after he originally said it.

Can I be homophobic next time we chat?
posted by rhymer at 4:17 PM on November 22, 2007


The sentence that made me angry was the "we're just going to be outnumbered" one. Who is "we," exactly?

These comments were racist and hateful.

I'm not a religious person, although I am from a Muslim family from a largely Muslim place (Sarajevo) and I perceive myself as culturally Muslim, if nothing else.

I'm educated. I contribute to American society in innumerable ways. I support freedom of expression and freedom of belief with my soul and my heart and my pocketbook. When I read that "we're just going to be outnumbered," I realize that Amis doesn't perceive me (or my many British counterparts) as a part of mainstream society, but rather as something "other," and from his words, lesser.

The irony is that I don't reciprocate these repellant views, despite having many, many more reasons by which I could substantiate a distrust of Christianity than Amis has to foster his distrust of Islam.

I lost my parents. I lost my home and my country. I have suffered health problems, bullet wounds and shrapnel from shells. I lost the ability to finish a professional degree I had been working towards. I lost years of productivity while I starved and shivered and sickened myself with fear and uncertainty. And all of this was directly and irrefutably due to "Christian" extremists with a perserve distortion of their religion's ideology.

I am sentient and reasonable enough that even after all that, I realize that there really isn't any "us"/"them" dichotomy except in the heads of paranoids, and that the actions of a few out of many means . . . absolutely nothing. So I live quite happily despite being "outnumbered" by people who do not really have their own "house in order."

I wish Amis had the same common sense and reason. If he's not racist, he's certainly an unthinking idiot.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 4:39 PM on November 22, 2007 [14 favorites]


I think it's perfectly fine to hate the stupid religion, but believers deserve our pity, not deportation or harrassment.
posted by dydecker at 5:54 PM on November 22, 2007


Christopher Hitchens defending a bigot? I'm shocked.
posted by Artw at 8:26 PM on November 22, 2007


Manjusri summed up by feelings fairly well; I'm as tired of kneejerk accusations of racism as I am with kneejerk xenophobia. Both of them stem from irrational and automatic hatred of ideas different than one's own, and both of them are distracting us from a discussion that really needs to happen.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:41 PM on November 22, 2007


Of course in the UK "Asians" does not include Chinese, Japanese, and so on. A friend of mine was shocked to learn that yesterday, since she was arguing that Indians, Pakistanis were not Asian
posted by delmoi at 8:47 PM on November 22, 2007


Where exactly do we hear from moderate Islam "all the time"?
posted by A189Nut at 9:08 PM on November 22, 2007


It's an issue of integration. I remember, during my time in London, huge sections of the place are little Pakistans or Bangladeshes, and the few times I found myself in these areas I didn't feel threatened, but I was also definitely not welcomed. Whether this situation is is by the choice of these minorities or forced upon them by the racism / xenophobia of the majority isn't the issue. The fact is, they are a non-mixing and very different minority group that stand out.

Compare to the Hindus and Sikhs in Britain. They have to a much greater extent been accepted / chosen to integrate into mainstream British culture, and you don't hear about huge problems with them.

Similar with Muslims, Ismailis, Hindus, and Sikhs in Canada. Maybe it's something to do with Canadians not having such a strong national identity to start with, and more of a curious and tolerant attitude to newcomers? Or that part of the national identity, at least since the 60s, is that we're all from elsewhere, and that we can absorb and welcome foreigners while not losing our Canadian identity? The only time we've had serious issues with the South Asian minorities was the Sikh bombing of the Indian airliner in Vancouver 20 years ago. The problem was a small group of radical Sikhs who were still on team Punjab, rather than team Canada.

The van Gogh stabbing in the Netherlands changed my thinking on these issues a lot. Liberal Democracy is built on openness and acceptance of minorities, but what do you do when a minority shows up that is closed, conservative, and really doesn't want to join the team? And that is violently opposed to the ideas of tolerance and openness that allowed them to come in the first place? If you don't accept gays, the rights of women, and all the other personal freedom stuff that makes the Liberal Democracies so excellent, well why the fuck are you here?
posted by Meatbomb at 1:05 AM on November 23, 2007


I remember, during my time in London, huge sections of the place are little Pakistans or Bangladeshes, and the few times I found myself in these areas I didn't feel threatened, but I was also definitely not welcomed.

I dunno. I live five minutes walk from Whitechapel which (I think) is the largest concentration of Bengalis in the UK. By and large it seems pretty friendly to me: I walk through it every other day and I certainly don't feel not welcome.

Although I do agree with your point that tolerance shouldn't extend to tolerating the intolerant.
posted by rhymer at 1:47 AM on November 23, 2007


For my sins, I'm currently on assignment at Tower Hamlets council and Whitechapel, Bethnal Green, Brick Lane Brick Lane etc. fall under my remit. I do not in any feel excluded or detect unfriendly vibes from the residents or any of my muslim colleagues.

That said, it still feels unerving to be in a meeting with women who have completely covered themselves, head to toe in fabric. And I am a little annoyed that certain community groups will only engage with my department if we send another woman to speak to them - Men are not allowed . I'm anti-religious, anti-intolerance, ant--discriminatory etc. but sometimes that flow I think should go both ways.

I dunno, it's difficult....
posted by Mintyblonde at 5:44 AM on November 23, 2007


Although I did not agree with his opinion, I had more of an issue with Amis' atrociously over-wrought prose.
posted by sid at 8:37 AM on November 23, 2007


Where exactly do we hear from moderate Islam "all the time"?

Well, they seem to crop up in the comments page of the Guardian wondering why nobody beleives in their existance fairly frequently...
posted by Artw at 1:42 PM on November 23, 2007


The van Gogh stabbing in the Netherlands changed my thinking on these issues a lot.

So, one act, by a lone (seemingly disturbed) individual was that powerful? How then, should moderates on the "other side" feel about a democratic country like Britain sending troops to fight against Muslims in Iraq, and killing thousands in the process?

I also assume that after the Pym Fortuyn killing, you question the values of vegans?

Generally it seems to be my impression that when people who claim to be 'open minded' have their entire belief system shaken by a single act by a single madman, that alleged original belief system wasn't actually there to begin with.
posted by cell divide at 2:15 PM on November 23, 2007


Sorry, but criticising a religion is not tantamount to racism.

No (although the original article argues that it is): but talking about racial profiling is: ""The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order. What sort of suffering? Not let them travel. Deportation - further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they're from the Middle East or from Pakistan ..."

Which for one thing is dumb (can you really strip search the millions of people in London, who fit this description?), and for another is racist discrimination. (And on a personal note scares the hell out of me since I'm traveling to London soon and I've been mistaken for a Middle Easterner several times - how your actual peace-loving Muslims must feel about it, I don't want to imagine).

As for moderate Islam: I tend to find that I hear from moderate Islam when I talk to actual real-life Muslims.
posted by Infinite Jest at 5:17 PM on November 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


Christopher Hitchens defending a bigot? I'm shocked.

Oh, that's harsh. Though you'd think that, having set himself upon filling the shoes vacated by Mart's dad, he'd feel somewhat intimidated by Mart himself taking steps in that direction.
posted by holgate at 6:28 PM on November 23, 2007



So, one act, by a lone (seemingly disturbed) individual was that powerful?

Love the "(seemingly disturbed)". Nice touch.
posted by IndigoJones at 11:03 AM on November 24, 2007


I only meant to suggest that he might have been insane rather then "just" an extremist. Perhaps there is no real distinction there, but I do think it's at least slightly relevant.
posted by cell divide at 3:54 PM on November 24, 2007


Chris Morris enters the fray.
posted by WPW at 9:35 PM on November 24, 2007 [3 favorites]


Wow. That Chris Morris peice is really good.
posted by Artw at 11:14 PM on November 24, 2007


Yes indeed, thanks for posting it.
To recap, Amis was called a racist because he said Muslims were backward, violent, homophobic, paranoid, boring, retarded and stupid. Hitchens said no, he's conducting a 'thought experiment'.

Now Amis should be allowed to wonder aloud about anything. He can suggest Muslims should 'experience painful discrimination until they get tough with their children' if he likes. Thought experiments are fine. But if he bundles his thoughts on Islam together and iterates them one after the other as he did when I saw him, he displays not unguarded musing but the forging of an incoherent creed of hate. It goes roughly like this: 9/11 was horrific, its driving ideology was totalitarian, the totalitarians were Muslims, all Muslims follow a book they believe to be the immutable word of God, I don't believe that, therefore all Muslims are idiots, and basically bastards. Idiot bastards moping around the Middle East in a paranoid funk just cos they lost their empire, and what a rubbish empire it was, too, by the way. Now, what is your balanced view of these primitive wife-beating idiotic bastards?
posted by languagehat at 6:17 AM on November 25, 2007


I really must get around to reading New Maps of Hell, and that James Bond novel.
posted by Artw at 9:13 AM on November 26, 2007


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