When Martin Amis took on the left
Unlike his friend Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis did not revel in argument. Nor, like so many artists, did he subscribe (or pretend to subscribe) to identikit left-wing views. But in the early 2000s, he found himself and placed himself at the centre of the ferocious arguments about radical Islam, the war on terror, Islamophobia and Israel. I went to talk to him. Not everything he said back then stands up well. But the reason I and so many others will miss him terribly is that so much of what he said can still compel you to stop and think again.
WHEN LIBERAL intellectuals go on one of their periodic berserkers, the targets of their rage experience three emotions. The first is astonishment as men and women who boast of their independence of mind turn into a gang of playground bullies. Outrage follows as they hear supposedly respectable academics and journalists propagate demonstrable lies. Finally they settle into a steady contempt, as they realise that many liberal intellectuals are neither liberal nor noticeably intelligent for that matter.
Neutral observers watching Martin Amis recently at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the meeting place for what passes for the avant-garde in London, realised that he had reached the serene terminus of the emotional journey. He sat toying with a transgressive cigarette while all around him a herd of otherwise thoughtful people went quite mad.
As anyone who reads the serious press knows, the cause of their fury was and is Amis’s insistence that there are worse ideas in the world than America, and a radical version of Islam that might have stepped out of a liberal’s nightmare is one them. That liberals cannot make a stand against a global wave of religious mayhem that is ‘irrationalist, misogynist, homophobic, inquisitional, totalitarian, imperialist and genocidal,’ to use Amis’s list, is a moral failure as great as their predecessors’ inability to see Josef Stalin for what he was and offer support to communism’s victims.
The meeting grew angrier as he explained the obvious. So in a conciliatory spirit, Amis attempted to find common ground. ‘Would all those in the hall who think they are morally superior to the Taliban please raise your hands,’ he asked.
Only a third did.
Shaken, but undeterred, he sought to win the rest round. It’s not only that the Taliban throw acid in the faces of women who don’t wear the veil, he said. It is not merely that they execute teachers for the crime of teaching girls to read and write. On top of all of that they ‘black out the windows of houses where women work so that they have to live without sunlight’. Surely you fine anti-sexists, anti-racists can put aside your post-modern relativism for a moment and accept that you are a little better than that?
When I met him in the living room of his early Victorian house by Regent’s Park, the first genteel home I’ve visited in years where you can smoke indoors, he thought his defence of the rights of women had hit home. ‘It was a statement of principle not to raise your hand,’ he said. ‘The only people you are allowed to feel morally superior to are the Americans and the Israelis. But maybe some of what I said about the Taliban sunk in. Perhaps more trembling hands would have gone up if I had asked for another vote’
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that it wouldn’t have made a difference if Osama bin Laden had appeared alongside him and declared that listening to Amis had prompted a rethink.
Led by Chris Morris, a comedian whose previous contribution to political thought was the brave observation that the Daily Mail can sometimes be a nasty paper, the majority of the audience stayed sullen. They wondered how best to put him down, until an angry man had a ‘Eureka!’ moment and hit back with a killer question.
‘What about Israel?’ he cried.
Outsiders may need me to add here that in contemporary leftish circles Israel is the great Satan, whose sinister Jews control if not the whole world, as Adolf Hitler maintained, then at least the foreign policy of the United States of America. If speakers criticise the Islamist extreme right, they are immediately suspected of being the dupes of the ‘Zionist’ conspiracy.
Amis replied that educated people should be able to combine a desire for a just settlement for the Palestinians with an understanding that Israel is a small country surrounded by enemies who want to wipe it off the map.
He was being over-optimistic, and the meeting erupted.
‘Ohmigod he’s defending Israel now!’ squealed Morris.
‘You could read views like this man’s in the Daily Telegraph!’ cried an outraged pensioner, stabbing an accusatory finger at Amis.
‘With this, the fight was over,” Padraig Reidy of Index on Censorship noted on the Guardian’s Comment Is Free website. ‘For if there is one thing worse than killing Palestinians, which Amis obviously does on a daily basis, it is having a view that might, possibly, be agreed with by someone who writes for the Telegraph. The good people of liberal England could go home reassured that Amis was a bad, bad man with bad, bad ideas.’
ALTHOUGH MARTIN AMIS has written well about communism and nuclear weapons, he was never a politically controversial figure until now. Unlike his old friend Christopher Hitchens, he is not an essayist who bounces off each morning’s headlines. Unlike Salman Rushdie, another old friend, he has not been forced by the death threats of radical Islam to make politics his first priority. Literature always came first, and he is still getting used to being in the middle of a polemical war.
He quotes Saul Bellow. ‘In Herzog, Bellow says, ‘don’t contradict your times, just don’t contradict your times, if you want a peaceful life”.’
But he means it ironically, and the nature of our times has made his late emergence as controversialist all but inevitable. Totalitarian movements exaggerate men’s worst death lusts, but none has been as unequivocally misogynist as jihadism. In the introduction to The Second Plane, his new collection of essays, Amis explains that ‘Geopolitics may not be my natural subject, but masculinity is. And have we ever seen the male idea in such outrageous garb as the robes, combat fatigues, suits and ties, jeans, tracksuits and medics’ smocks of the Islamic radical.’
He emphasises the point by describing a satire he eventually abandoned on how fear of women breeds male violence. Amis’s Ayed character, is formed as a potential terrorist when his family moves from the badlands of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border to America.
Back home in Waziristan, a boy of his age would be feeling a lovely warm glow of pride around now, as he realizes that his sisters, in one important respect, are just like his mother: they can’t read or write either. In America, though, the girls are obliged to go to school. Before Ayed knows it, the women have shed their veils, and his sisters are being called on by gun-chewing kaffirs.
There’s a second reason why his current notoriety was more likely than he appears to imagine. The grandees of the liberal mainstream have always been wary of him. Notoriously, juries for the Booker Prize honoured contemporaries from the Seventies and Eighties who are now unread, but ignored his novels. The usual explanation is that Amis’s explorations of the male psyche are unsettling, but I wonder if the arts administrators and the highbrow critics, the elderly politicians with a literary bent and the governors of the BBC didn’t also have the uneasy feeling that he was laughing at them.
A passage from the opening of his 1995 novel The Information presciently captured the conformism of middle-class liberal opinion long before it was arrayed against him. At the end of the long period of Tory rule, Richard, the wretched hero, is visiting the Holland Park mansion of Gwyn Barry, a literary rival who, unconscionably, has become an immense success. Richard’s envy is heightened when he walks into the study to find a sycophantic colour-supplement journalist seeking Gwyn’s opinions on the issues of the day
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