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Infamous Amis

I just flew in from New York City and boy are my liver, kidneys, and soul (sorry, Josh) tired. I can finally say that I understand what Kingsley Amis, in his profound and subtle vade mecum On Drink, called the … Read More

By / November 28, 2007

I just flew in from New York City and boy are my liver, kidneys, and soul (sorry, Josh) tired. I can finally say that I understand what Kingsley Amis, in his profound and subtle vade mecum On Drink, called the “metaphysical hangover.” I may never again leave the safety of my sun-drenched NorCal balcony. I mention this only because it’s a shame that my delightful Magic Mountain-style convalescence should be interrupted by blood-boiling nonsense like this:

What do you make of the following statement: “Asians are gaining on us demographically at a huge rate. 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.” While we’re at it, what do you think of this, incidentally from the same speaker: “The Black community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.” Or this, the same speaker again: “I just don’t hear from moderate Judaism, do you?” And (yes, same speaker): “Strip-searching Irish people. Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole Irish community and they start getting tough with their children.”

The speaker was Martin Amis and, yes, the quotations have been modified, with Asians, Blacks and Irish here substituted for Muslims, and Judaism for Islam—though, it should be stressed, these are the only amendments. Terry Eagleton, professor of English literature at Manchester University, where Amis has also started to teach, recently quoted the remarks in a new edition of his book Ideology: An Introduction. Amis, Eagleton claimed, was advocating nothing less than the “hounding and humiliation” of Muslims so “they would return home and teach their children to be obedient to the White Man’s law”.

The heated exchanges that followed were trivialised in the mainstream media as “a nasty literary punch-up”, “the talk of the literary world”, “a spat” between “two warring professors”, and the silence that followed seemed to confirm it as a passing tiff between two high-ranking members of the chattering class.

I see it differently. Amis’s views are symptomatic of a much wider and deeper hostility to Islam and intolerance of otherness.

The conceit of the opening paragraph (“yes, the quotations have been modified, with nonsense here substituted for the original remarks”) is jaw-dropping in its juvenility and disingenuousness, but there is much, much more to object to here. I was reminded of a great passage in Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great—rhetorically brilliant if not entirely convincing from a theological standpoint—in which he holds up the ninth and tenth commandments as examples of organized religion’s totalitarian leanings: “The essential principle of totalitarianism is to make laws that are impossible to obey. . . . The commandment at Sinai which forbade people even to think about coveting goods is the first clue. It is echoed in the New Testament by the injunction which says that a man who looks upon a woman has actually committed adultery already.”

The connection, of course, is that Amis’s remarks, spoken off the cuff in an interview, were a confession of an urge, a fact which Ronan Bennett acknowledges but which does nothing to soften his belief that Amis despises “otherness”: “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)”’.” Later, Bennett notes, “He also confessed to ‘little impulses, urges and atavisms now and then’, which was uncomfortably like a collusive wink to the audience: we all have our little prejudices, don’t we?”

It’s difficult to argue that Amis hasn’t shot himself in the foot, but let’s look at that sentence. I don’t think Amis has admitted to “little prejudices.” I think “little frustrations,” or perhaps pretty big ones, is closer to the truth. Honesty doesn’t get one very far these days, when politicians are so often criticized for, as a friend of mine put it recently, not manipulating us skillfully enough. (What is a “gaffe,” ever, but a failure to control our reactions?) Yet, all Amis is guilty of here is honesty. He has stated in effect that his frustration and impatience with the secularizing impulse, such as it is, in Islam leads him to unpleasant thoughts, thoughts that his rational mind would (mostly) disavow.

In the other corner we have folks like Terry Eagleton and Ronan Bennett pretending that they have never pondered anything so base. Their vantage is not the real world of airport security or subway stop and search, but a liberal empyrean where human nature must be checked at the door. I wonder why, if the transcendent tolerance of Eagleton et al. really exists, we always hear that this or that comment or cartoon risks “radicalizing” the “moderate Muslim.” I’m not in the camp that claims the “moderate Muslim” doesn’t exist, but I’ve always wondered why one thought to be so easily inflamed to violence can be called “moderate.” In a sense, it’s the tread-lightly liberals, deathly afraid of this inevitable “radicalization,” who are most guilty of insulting Muslims. They call them lambs in public, but their secret thoughts couldn’t possibly be more clear.

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