Scribes of Hate: Culture Vultures and the Terror War

I'm sure that a great many Americans don't know who Martin Amis is. If they do, they are more likely to know him as the author of "The Rachel Papers," which was made into quirky teen-comes-of-age movie years ago, or perhaps as the son of Kingsley Amis, whose acerbic, slightly racy (for their day) novels were once mainstays on the British literary scene.  But Martin himself has become something of a Brit mainstay in his middle age, routinely touted as one of the island's top writers and definitely one of the glitterati on the literary scene.

He is also one of a number of writers on both sides of the Atlantic who were so traumatized by 9/11 that their political polarities were completely reversed. Once rakish, left-of-center, somewhat anti-Establishment types, they suddenly became ardent champions of Authority, cheering on the great Leaders who would keep them safe. (Amis even embedded himself with Blair for intimate portraits of the great man in action.)

Amis was one of the first out of the blocks with his metamorphosis, delivering a well-paid piece just days after the attack which I thought even at the time read like the panicky words of a man who until that moment had never thought his own precious self might meet with the violent end that daily afflicts multitudes of the lesser orders around the world.

And Amis began as he meant to go on. Shaking off the parlor socialism of his youth, he made the astonishing discovery that Josef Stalin had been one bad hombre. Did you know there was this Gulag thing? And tortures and stuff? This was apparently all news to Amis, who wrote a book about his discoveries, pedantically laying out all the facts that Solzhenitsyn, Robert Conquest and countless others had detailed decades ago. I recall him telling a story of how one night during that time, he and his wife were awakened by their young daughter, who was crying so loudly that even the all-night nanny who looked after her for the Amises couldn't calm her, and Martin himself was forced to rise from his bed and attend the child. As the screeching went on, he turned to his wife and said, "You know, her cries would not have been out of place in Stalin's Lubyanka."

And there, in that agonizing moment in his London mansion, Martin Amis became as one with the victims of the Gulag.

Needless to say, Amis followed his good friend Christopher Hitchens into the lists to take up a lance against "Islamofascism" -- an enemy which, like Hitchens, he seems to have trouble distinguishing from Muslims in general. In fact, as novelist Ronan Bennett noted in a major piece in Monday's Guardian, Amis -- suave literary lion of British high culture -- has taken up and megaphoned almost every ignorant, hatemongering, Islamophobic trope of the knuckle-dragging Right -- including that old standby of sexual panic from time immemorial: "They're outbreeding us!"

"Muslims are gaining on us demographically at a huge rate," Amis says, echoing the clenched-scrotum fear of the genuinely moronic Mark Steyn. "A quarter of humanity now and by 2025 they'll be a third. Italy's down to 1.1 child per woman. We're just going to be outnumbered." These are of course precisely the same kind of vapors that our manly Anglo-American elites have voiced over the years about Jews, blacks, the Irish, the Chinese, Mexicans and so on. "They" are always coming, "they" are always breeding like flies, "they" are always going to overwhelm "us" -- and steal "our" women.

That earlier mainstay of the British literary scene, William Shakespeare, once caught this sexual panic perfectly in Henry V, as he portrays the frightful French in dread of the English invasion:

By faith and honour,
Our madams mock at us, and plainly say
Our mettle is bred out, and they will give
Their bodies to the lust of English youth
To new-store France with bastard warriors.

But Amis, like Hitchens and countless other "liberal hawks," doesn't confine his fears to the lack of fecundity among cultured white folk. He is also keen to see the power of the state brought down upon the heads of ordinary, law-abiding Muslims, in order to instill, well, terror in them:

The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order. What sort of suffering? Not letting 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 ... Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children...

There is another word for this: collective punishment. The cultured defenders of civilization once punished this kind of thing with war crimes trials and executions of its practitioners. Now our panicky paladins reach for the truncheon at the slightest twinge of fear, the slightest perceived threat to their privilege.

The Amis quote above comes from an interview in The Times last year, which was noted -- and criticized -- in a recent book by literary critic Terry Eagleton, sparking the kind of cultural spat so beloved by British newspapers. But Ronan Bennett's piece goes behind the gossipy headlines to reveal the rank racism at the heart of Amis' metamorphosis. And it is this same kind of racism, and its tacit acceptance -- or, more often, its eager embracing -- by the Anglo-American Establishments that has led and will lead us into more mass murder. Already the state-led "Terror War" has claimed far more innocent victims than the terrorism of stateless criminal bands adhering to various extremist strains of Islam.

Racism is always, everywhere, an expression of ignorance. And in almost every case, this is a willful ignorance, a deliberate blindness induced by fear, by greed, by anger, by the projection of one's own base and chaotic nature (the common lot of all humanity) onto some scapegoat.
The trembly fears of Martin Amis are of no great moment in themselves. But the most powerful forces in the world are being ruled by same kind of ignorance and blindness that his genteel racism represents. That's why Bennett's calling of Amis to account is an important gesture. We countenance such deadly ignorance at our own extreme peril.

Extensive excerpts from "Shame on Us," by Ronan Bennett, can be found after the jump.

Ronan Bennett:
Amis's views are symptomatic of a much wider and deeper hostility to Islam and intolerance of otherness. Only last week, the London Evening Standard felt able to sponsor a debate entitled: Is Islam good for London? Do another substitution here and imagine the reaction had Judaism been the subject. As Rabbi Pete Tobias noted...the so-called debate was sinisterly reminiscent of the paper's campaign a century ago to alert its readers to the "problem of the alien", namely the eastern European Jews fleeing persecution who had found refuge in the capital. In this context, Rod Liddle's contribution to the proceedings -- "Islamophobia? Count me in" -- sounds neither brave, brash nor provocatively outrageous, merely racist. Those who claim that Islamophobia can't be racist, because Islam is a religion not a race, are fooling themselves: religion is not only about faith but also about identity, background and culture, and Muslims are overwhelmingly non-white. Islamophobia is racist, and so is antisemitism...

Amis sought to excuse the passage quoted above by pointing out that it was prefaced by the words "There's a definite urge - don't you have it? - to say, 'The Muslim community ... (etc)'... In a letter to the Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, he explained, "It was a thought experiment, or a mood experiment."

....If, for some, the distinction was not quite clear, Amis expanded his defence in a live interview with Jon Snow on Channel 4 News. He maintained that the target of his attack was Islamism, "an extreme ideology within a religion". He was not, he stressed, attacking Islam itself or Muslims in general, though he ran into some difficulty when Snow reminded him of his observation on the alleged "extreme incuriosity of Islamic culture", and of his reaction on seeing his six-year-old daughter's toys being searched by airport security: "Oh yeah, and stick to people who look like they're from the Middle East" (itself further proof, if such were needed, of the racist nature of Islamophobia). Taken along with his assertion that "there are great problems in Islam", did not these statements, Snow proposed, indicate that he was taking "scattergun" aim at all Muslims? Amis retorted: "I do not believe in any persecution of the Muslim community. I think that would be counterproductive."

At which point, the question becomes unavoidable: is efficacy now to be the benchmark for persecutors?

...We can dispense with Amis's polite fiction that he is talking about "Islamism"; there are just too many generalisations ("The impulse towards rational inquiry," Amis wrote elsewhere, "is by now very weak in the rank and file of the Muslim male"), too many references to "them" and "us". When he says, for example, "they" are gaining on "us" demographically, he is demonstrably not talking about "Islamists". The danger of being overrun, outnumbered, outbred is a repugnant trope beloved of supremacists everywhere...When Amis voices his fears of being overrun, he is, and he knows he is, perpetuating and enhancing the spectre of the other, and loading it with the potent imagery of swarming poverty, violence and ignorance.

At the Cheltenham literary festival, Amis treated his audience to a discussion on the relative value of Muslim and western states, the former being, in his estimation, less evolved than the latter. "I am just saying that some societies are more evolved than others," he said. (Evolved is an interesting choice of word. In the Belgian Congo, the colonisers used to employ a system of rewarding colonised people who alienated themselves from indigenous society: they were raised to an officially designated category of évolués.) "There is no inoffensive way to put this," Amis continued provocatively. "By evolved, I mean more civilised. We have more respect for civil society."

This is not the time or place to debate the proposition or the definitions Amis employs, though I would say, in a general response to the generalised argument, that I have seen, at times, rather more respect for civil society, from how they treat their families and the elderly to strangers in the street, in Damascus, Ramallah and east Jerusalem than I have seen, at times, in London, New York and Paris. Equally, when he says, "Here in the west we have the most evolved society in the world and we are not blowing people up", it is hard not to think of the ghosts of tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Muslim dead from Iraq to Afghanistan who might take issue with him. No, here the salient point is that Amis, contrary to his assertions, is talking about Islam, not Islamism, Muslims, not Islamists.

It is one thing - and the right thing - to challenge at every turn antisemitism, misogyny, homophobia, incitement to violence and hatred where it exists among Muslims, just as we should where it exists in the police, the church, the political parties, newspapers or anywhere else. But British Muslims I have spoken to now talk about feeling "deluged" by hostile comment. Hardly a day goes past when they are not lectured and scolded by writers claiming to be the champions of true liberalism....

This is a community under attack, and not just by novelists. By every official index, violence and discrimination against Muslims have increased since 2001....

Muslims bridle at the broad strokes by which they are depicted. Every time a writer or politician or policeman begins a sentence by saying "Muslims must ...", there is little recognition of the sheer variety of belief within Islam, or of the cultural diversity among Muslims, or of the everyday pragmatic reality of what it means in a secular age to believe in God and to try to live by that belief. In this respect Muslims are like anyone else. Some are devout, some are not at all, some are not very much, and some are devout sometimes. Some are sinners; they fall down and try to get up again. Some are hypocrites who fall down and pretend to be still on their feet. Many fail to live up to their religion's, and their own, high expectations of themselves. Many have sex outside marriage, as many Catholics do. Some Muslims drink alcohol, as some Jews eat pork. A few, in common with a few Christians, think gay people should be murdered. Observant Muslims contest, dispute, accept and reject points of doctrine exactly as those from other faiths do. The Qur'an, as one Muslim put it to me, is not a program to be loaded and Muslims are not computers....

Four days after the Pentagon and the twin towers were attacked, the novelist Ian McEwan wrote on these pages: "Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality." As an expression of outraged, anguished humanism, McEwan's formulation was truthful, moving and humbling, and can hardly be bettered. But it seems to me the compassion is flowing in one direction, the anger in another. I can't help feeling that Amis's remarks, his defence of them, and the reaction to them were a test. They were a test of our commitment to a society in which imaginative sympathy applies not just to those like us but to those whose lives and beliefs run along different lines.

And I can't help feeling we failed that test. Amis got away with it. He got away with as odious an outburst of racist sentiment as any public figure has made in this country for a very long time. Shame on him for saying it, and shame on us for tolerating it.