Standing up to Martin Amis

by Chris Bertram on November 20, 2007

I’m just back from Arizona (big thanks to Kieran and Laurie btw), where I had a great time. My purpose in going there was to deliver a paper on “public reason and immigration” and a couple of conversations I had on the trip concerned how some Americans see the European issue. In both of them (one with a grad student, one with the guy next to me on a plane) my interlocutor referred, in almost identical terms, to Europe’s problem with immigration by “fundamentalist Muslims”, and seemed to believe that this was an accurate depiction of the Islamic population of Europe. Meanwhile, back home, my partner had arranged for a Muslim colleague to accompany her to watch Bristol thump Stade Francais in the Heineken cup. Needless to say, the woman in question is about as distant as it is possible to be from the Muslims who feature in the imagination of my two conversation partners. At Heathrow, I bought a copy of the Guardian to read on the bus, and was reminded by Ronan Bennett’s excellent article, that such blanket stereotyping is also practised by many people here in the UK, who don’t have the excuse of lack of familiarity. When the stereotyping is done by a major British cultural and literary figure and is mixed with a strong dose of sadistic revenge fantasty, it is all the more deplorable. But as Bennett points out, Martin Amis has largely got away with it and a lot of the commentary has been more critical of Terry Eagleton for calling him the bigot that he is. (Chris Brooke at the Virtual Stoa also linked the other day to some more on-the-money kicking of Amis, in which the great writer’s grasp of the history of technology is examined.)

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1

Matt 11.20.07 at 3:40 pm

Such stereotyping is saddly all too common in discussion of immigration. In the US you have the two steotypes of Mexican immigrants, often both held by the same people. First, that they are very lazy, won’t work, and just want welfare. Second, that they work so hard and for so little that Americans can’t possibly compete with them. By switching back and forth between the two any appeal to evidence can be avoided.

2

engels 11.20.07 at 4:26 pm

Another academic blogger refers to this tendency as ‘block thinking’.

3

Barry 11.20.07 at 5:00 pm

“But as Bennett points out, Martin Amis has largely got away with it and a lot of the commentary has been more critical of Terry Eagleton for calling him the bigot that he is. “

One of the many things which has made me much more cynical in the past several years is watching people refuse to reject a professional colleague, even as the guy walks off into whack-job land.

4

Sebastian Holsclaw 11.20.07 at 5:25 pm

Maybe I’m not understanding the framing of your conversations, but identifying Europe’s problem with immigration by “fundamentalist Muslims” and identifying Europe’s problem with immigration by “Muslims who by definition are obviously fundamentalist Muslims” isn’t the same thing.

5

MaxSpeak 11.20.07 at 5:58 pm

Seems to me the correct distinction is between Muslims bent on violence out of jihadist ambitions, and all the rest, the latter including many “fundamentalists.” I think we get in trouble insofar as the impression is lent that the problem is fundies per se, which I don’t think was CB’s intention, by the way.

6

Sk 11.20.07 at 6:19 pm

“…and seemed to believe that this was an accurate depiction of the Islamic population of Europe. Meanwhile, back home, my partner had arranged for a Muslim colleague to accompany her to watch Bristol thump Stade Francais in the Heineken cup.”

Interesting that you would oppose an irrational stereotype through the use of a similary irrational argument through personal experience. In the social sciences, this inflation of personal experience (“Nixon couldn’t have won; I didn’t know any body that voted for him!”) has a name that I can’t remember (though Wikipedia defines it as ‘Proof by Example.’)

Oh, well. I guess we’re all irrational and untrustworthy in our own way.

Sk

7

Sebastian Holsclaw 11.20.07 at 6:21 pm

It depends, depending on the level of fundamentalism, Europeans might still be troubled by the immigration of people who force their women to be fully covered, resist education of women to certain degrees, and try to force arranged marriages even if violence is not at issue.

8

Steve LaBonne 11.20.07 at 6:24 pm

If I have to choose between bigoted Amises I’ll take his father, thank you very much. He was a far more entertaining writer (and one who didn’t take himself nearly as seriously, to the great benefit of his books).

9

lemuel pitkin 11.20.07 at 6:31 pm

The Martin Amis of Success through The Information (Time’s Arrow excepted) was an extraordinarily fine writer. His decline since then has been … vertiginous? precipitous? Anyway, hiss tuff now is very bad. But I don’t beleive any of Kingsley’s stuff (even Lucky Jim) matches up to Martin in his prime.

10

abb1 11.20.07 at 6:31 pm

Jeez. “…people who force their women to be fully covered”? You sure have a deep understanding of the fundies, Sebastian. Tell us more, please.

11

bjk 11.20.07 at 6:32 pm

It only takes a handful of fundamentalists to blow up a train. That the other million weren’t involved isn’t much consolation to the people on the train.

12

Steve LaBonne 11.20.07 at 6:56 pm

Well, I guess I’m a philistine, but to my (lack of) taste a bunch of gaudily overwritten passages strung together by self-consciously clever pomo conceits don’t add up to a book. De gustibus. (BTW The Old Devils is even better than Lucky Jim.)

13

Chris Bertram 11.20.07 at 7:08 pm

SK: I’m happy to give some weight to the fact that the Muslims I actually know don’t resemble the Muslims of Martin Amis’s imagination in any respect. Of course, my personal impressions are fallible. If you want to keep an open mind about whether those impressions are equiprobable with Amis’s imaginings, pending a fully social scientific study, that’s your privilege.

14

JRoth 11.20.07 at 7:48 pm

It only takes a handful of fundamentalists to blow up a train the Olympics/an abortion clinic/a Federal Building. That the other million weren’t involved isn’t much consolation to the people on the train.

This is so true. It’s why a lot of Europeans fear for the future of the US.

15

Barry 11.20.07 at 7:52 pm

jroth, you forgot: target of the day for the Empire/someplace which is illicitly concealing US oil under their sands.

16

Shane 11.20.07 at 8:20 pm

I’m happy to give some weight to the fact that the Muslims I actually know don’t resemble the Muslims of Martin Amis’s imagination in any respect. Of course, my personal impressions are fallible. If you want to keep an open mind about whether those impressions are equiprobable with Amis’s imaginings, pending a fully social scientific study, that’s your privilege.

Good point. Pending a “fully social scientific study”, none of the terrorist/jihadist acts by Muslims on assorted Western countries is admissable. That crazy Amis, and his imaginary Muslims. What a dumbass.

17

ted 11.20.07 at 8:29 pm

it was a rubbish article actually.

nevertheless, anyone who’s read amis’ autobiography will find all this quite ironic.

18

Hidari 11.20.07 at 9:04 pm

One thing that hasn’t been highlighted enough is indicated by these quotes:

‘Present-day Spain translates as many books into Spanish, annually, as the Arab world has translated into Arabic in the past 1,100 years…In 2002 the aggregate GDP of all the Arab countries was less than the GDP of Spain…’ (Amis: emphasis added).

This shows, I think, how easily anti-Muslim prejudice turns into straightforward racism ‘under pressure’. The fact that Amis uses Arab and Muslim more or less as synonyms demonstrates that his real philosophy on these issues has more in common with ‘racial science’ and The Bell Curve than with any defence of democratic values.

19

shtove 11.20.07 at 9:39 pm

My Kashmiri sister in law (Muslim party) was faux amazed when told that the Indian army has a rugby team – “they’re not big enough!” We assured her, in our “Oirish brogues”, that Munster would thrash them Hindis without breaking a sweat.

Prejudices add to the gaiety of families, but to see them touted in the media is dispiriting.

Bristol will be walloped by the Men from Thomond.

20

Cian 11.21.07 at 12:03 am

“It only takes a handful of fundamentalists to blow up a train. That the other million weren’t involved isn’t much consolation to the people on the train.”

Or a handful of Irish, Basque Nationaists, White supremicists, etc, etc.

21

Crystal 11.21.07 at 1:45 am

It only took a handful of white American guys to blow up this building.

22

Order of Magnitude 11.21.07 at 6:12 am

Re: comment #18
I am having trouble follwing your point. He may have been referring to the “Arab Human Development Report 2002”, written by a team of Arab Scholars and published in July 2002 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which states smth like that in the last 1,000 years the Arabs have translated as many books as Spain translates in one year. I can’t find the actual text at http://www.undp.org/rbas/ahdr/ (lots of 404 errors) but secondary sources also quote smth like “The Arab world translates about 330 books annually, one fifth of the number that Greece translates.”

23

Hidari 11.21.07 at 8:38 am

Yes, and yet somehow I think you understand my point very well. The BNP website is full of decontextualised ‘facts’ about the rate of scientific and ‘cultural’ development in black Africa. The idea that they somehow just picked these factoids out of the air, as though they were trying to come up with questions for QI, is…..an interesting one.

Incidentally, in today’s Guardian, Hitchens, of course, is attempting to deny that Amis is a racist, mainly on the grounds that Amis is one of the many rich white people Hitchens likes to call a friend.

24

zdenek v 11.21.07 at 9:15 am

“Incidentally, in today’s Guardian, Hitchens, of course, is attempting to deny that Amis is a racist, mainly on the grounds that Amis is one of the many rich white people Hitchens likes to call a friend.”

Actually, H’s defence of Amis, has nothing to do with that and everything with showing that Bennett is clumsily off target in his criticism of Amis because he does not get, that Amis is not making a recommendation but rather is exploring what is thinkable. If this is true Bennett has not of course showed that Amis is a racist.

25

chris armstrong 11.21.07 at 9:19 am

Strikes me that Amis is a prat with distasteful views on muslims, BUT Bennett simply doesn’t deal with the fact that Amis instantly repudiates the illiberal urges he mentions, and states clearly that translating them into illiberal political policies would be wrong. Not even mentioning this made the piece plain sloppy, in my view. Amis might be a prat, but he at least has the wits to step back from advocating nasty fascist policies. What he says round the dinner table, we cannot know.

26

zdenek v 11.21.07 at 10:15 am

Is islamophobia a form of racism ? This is what Bennet says :

“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.”

Maybe, but is this point relevant, because another reason and a deeper one, why Islamophobia is not racist is that racism involves invoking morally irrelevant consideration viz. race to justify a particular view or policy. ‘Speceism’ which we get from Peter Singer works like that too : invoking species membership , which is morally irrelevant, to justify mistreatment of animals.
But Islamophobia is not like that because if Amis says ‘Islamism is misoginist, homophobic, etc. and that is why it is wrong and should be combated’ he is not invoking irrelevant considerations that are intended to justify the judgement he makes. On the contrary, being discriminatory in the sense that it treats women as second class citizens etc. is morally relevant consideration from the point of view of justification ( unlike invoking of race )and so islamophobia is not racist for this deeper reason.

27

magistra 11.21.07 at 11:29 am

26 – Amis didn’t repudiate his views on harassing Muslims in his initial interview, but only more than a year later, when the fuss about it started. (The original comments were in an interview in the Times and their search facility doesn’t seem to be working properly today, otherwise I’d link). Now he’s claiming it’s a ‘thought experiment’, but it seems to me, like many others, that it’s more the kind of slightly concealed bigotry of ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ The aim is to legitimising authoritarianism, without actually saying it outright.

28

abb1 11.21.07 at 11:41 am

…he is not invoking irrelevant considerations that are intended to justify the judgement he makes.

And neither, of course, are many people fearing a different supposedly money-and-power-grabbing culture. Nevertheless, they are commonly (and rightfully) viewed as racists, no hair-splitting necessary.

29

magistra 11.21.07 at 11:49 am

As a follow-up, I’ve now found a copy of the original interview with Amis complete with the notorious quote. It also has him complaining about his daughters being ‘fascists’ because they don’t like him smoking, which shows that irony really is dead.

30

zdenek v 11.21.07 at 11:52 am

This exploration of ‘what is thinkable’ defence would not work if it was totally ad hoc, but it is not . As Hitch points out Amis does it in his fiction too and has done it before.

But hang on, does not this sort of exploration involve thinking racist thoughts and hence is Amis not a racist by virtue of that alone ? Yes, thinking racist thoughts , that sounds about right.

31

zdenek v 11.21.07 at 12:25 pm

“And neither, of course, are many people fearing a different supposedly money-and-power-grabbing culture. Nevertheless, they are commonly (and rightfully) viewed as racists, no hair-splitting necessary.”

Lets see, if there is a sound argument with true and morally relevant premises which has the conclusion that jews should not have a vote say, then if I say ‘jews should not have vote’ cannot be antisemitism because such a view is morally justified.
So if such a view is indeed antisemitic it follows that it is not morally justified, which has to do with moral relevance and truth of the premises in question.
But as I argue, there is an argument with morally relevant and true premises which supports the conclusion that Islamism is wrong and therefore it is not racist to hold such a view.

32

SG 11.21.07 at 12:43 pm

so Zdenek, is he anti-arab (as hinted at by Hidari), anti-Muslim (as initially implied by you – all Muslims are sexist and racist right, and if we follow the logic of your point at 32, an argument to deny them the vote on that basis could be morally justified…?), or is he anti-“Islamist”?

The last form of anti-ism is rather trivial, right, for anyone who lines up on the “winning” side of the war on terror. But what does that have to do with how many books the arab world has published?

33

engels 11.21.07 at 1:49 pm

It also has him complaining about his daughters being ‘fascists’ because they don’t like him smoking, which shows that irony really is dead.

What is it with the Decents and cancer sticks? How did defending Philip Morris’ profits and the increased rates of working class morbidity which they are based on become a defining issue of Decency? One of the minor puzzles of our times, I think.

34

W. Kiernan 11.21.07 at 3:45 pm

lemuel pitkin: hiss tuff now is very bad.

“hiss tuff”, so beautiful!

35

Order of Magnitude 11.21.07 at 4:34 pm

hidari, only because BNP (and I don’t know what that is,maybe Brit Natl Party??) has whatever stuff on their website, it does not render irrelevant or illegitimate the factual statements re: number of books translated by a group of countries.

36

g bruno 11.21.07 at 11:16 pm

Fundamentalist Islam’s strength results from Liberal Western Democracy’s weakness
LWD is strong on liberty, weak in equality and fraternity.
Vast disparity in wealth, fascination with mega rich, and entertainment workers (aka sports and movie celebrities)
A society that fails to provide essential human needs
while providing piles of stuff

Speeding steel chariots kill, isolate, and tie to credit lines

Hollow, meaningless, cruel,

eco-destructive air-conditioners, jet travel, 100kW chariots
nb CentralPlannedEconomies were worse on the ecology
but note oxen in post oil Cuba

LWD seem likes a success, but it’s hollow at the centre, cold, unsatisfying

FI is historically backward: on women’s rights, individual freedoms in general,
lacking science, (?) tolerance (? is this true?) and (military strength ??)

FI succeeds by default, merely because LWD is hollow at the centre.

A reversion to ‘family values’ ‘xtianity’ no abortions, mandatory prison time for droogs etc
wont save us.
I suspect that LWD cannot be reformed by a ‘conservative’ return. We must forge on, to some kind of vulgar vernacular society that satisfies,
which will cause medieval remnants like FI to wither.

37

abb1 11.22.07 at 8:27 am

Zdenek,
Lets see, if there is a sound argument with true and morally relevant premises which has the conclusion that jews should not have a vote say, then if I say ‘jews should not have vote’ cannot be antisemitism because such a view is morally justified.

If you think it’s possible to make “a sound argument with true and morally relevant premises” by using some vague and secondary criteria to identify a large group of mostly unconnected individuals, generalizing wildly about this imaginary group, and then declaring every one of these individuals an enemy of civilization – then that’s your problem right there.

38

zdenek v 11.22.07 at 10:16 am

abb1 , here is what I was saying. Compare two kinds of arguments , one objectionable and one not:

1) Persons who attend holy temples ( or do not eat pork , or have crooked noses , or accumulate money etc. ) are at fault and such behaviour should be penalized. To the extent that Jews attend holy temples their behaviour should be penalized.

2) Persons who discriminate against women ( or advocate killing apostates and homosexuals etc ) are at fault and such behaviour should be penalized and to the extent that Muslims discriminate against women, their behaviour should be penalized.

The point I was making was that racism is not adequately characterised as stereotyping ( stereotyping is at best a necessary condition and even that may not be true , my hunch is that stereotyping is a red herring in this debate ) but rather that it involves discrimination which is not morally justified and that is why it is objectionable : either a false premise or irrelevant moral principle is doing all the lifting( attending a place of worship is like race or species membership in that they are all morally irrelevant and will not provide support for the conclusion the racist wants ). This is precisely what has gone wrong with the first argument.
The second argument on the other hand does support the conclusion and hence penalizing Muslims who discriminate against women is morally justified. And here is the move that is important : from that it follows that expressing such a view cannot be racist.

39

SG 11.22.07 at 10:33 am

penalised by who, zdenek? The Americans in their pure completely non-sexist society? Perhaps you have someone in mind for this task? Some secret group you are a member of who treat women perfectly? Perhaps Ann Coulter could be the judge? She’s a woman after all (or so I hear), presumably she’s in a position to judge these things…?

Also you haven’t answered Abb1s point. You are still talking about a group of people (“persons who discriminate against women”) who are hopelessly disparate until you apply some other better qualifying information for the “penalty”. Your strong implication is that this additional information is somehow connected to their entering a temple (a mosque, specifically). Perhaps you could qualify how you aim to identify these groups for a coherent “penalty”?

You’re really just dog-whistling. When you say “persons who discriminate against women” what you are really saying is “look at how those savages treat their women”. In case you hadn’t noticed, this is generally behaviour associated with racism. This might be the reason that Amis is copping some flak, and is the point of Abb1’s question to you.

40

abb1 11.22.07 at 11:20 am

Right.

When you say “penalizing Muslims who discriminate against women” – do you mean ‘penalizing those Muslims who discriminate’ or ‘penalizing all the Muslims because they discriminate’? If it’s the former, why not simply penalize those who discriminate, Muslim or not? If it’s the latter, I only need to produce one Muslim who doesn’t discriminate (or anyway doesn’t discriminate more than your average Christian).

Not to mention the Muslim women; are they too guilty of discriminating against women? Do they need to be penalized?

How about ‘penalizing Jews who (say) impoverish Germans’? Would it make sense if there were indeed some Jewish bankers (among other bankers) foreclosing on homes of some Germans and refusing to cut them any slack?

41

zdenek v 11.22.07 at 12:34 pm

sg your main argument seems to be ‘you are not pure your self, so you cannot judge badness in others’. But this does not work as a criticism because the point I was making about racism can be true even if it is the case that all Americans and all Europeans are completely evil shits.
That is, even if a completely evil person utters something that is a conclusion of a sound argument and hence is justified, it remains justified period. The property ‘being justified ‘ does not vary with gender , race or personality of the person who utters the sentence in question.

If that is the case ( and I offered some reason to accept this ) then that is all I need to show that islamophobia of the sort I am talking about is not racist. That is the issue.

42

zdenek v 11.22.07 at 1:20 pm

abb1 unless you can pin on me stereotyping of Muslims you have little to offer in the way of criticism, hey ? Obviously, I am talking about those, and only those, who discriminate against women or promote killing of apostates etc. and not all Muslims, I thought that was clear from 2 , reread it.
But what is interesting is that even if I was stereotyping Muslims that would not show that I am being racist because of the following considerations : stereotyping is neither necessary nor sufficient for racism : If I say ‘all blacks are subhuman ‘ because I falsely and without good evidence believe that they are not homo sapiens and are modern form of home erectus, I am not stereotyping anyone and yet my view is clearly racist. This shows that you can be racist without stereotyping : stereotyping is not necessary.

But one can also stereotype without being racist : if I say ‘all Americans are fat’ I am stereotyping Americans but I am not being racist : stereotyping is not sufficient.

43

SG 11.22.07 at 1:45 pm

zdenek, your view that “evil shits” are correct when they draw logically correct conclusions about other evil shits may be true, but it misses a couple of things:

1) the evil shits in question want to penalise muslims and ONLY muslims for this thing you think is so terrible
2) they have the power to do this
3) when they do it, hundreds of thousands of people die.

if you can’t distinguish between this type of evil shit assigning themselves the right to “penalise” people (and being supported in that by their oh-so-pure citizens, such as yourself) and the very different actions they take towards people of a different race who do the same things, then you are being disingenuous and silly.

On top of which, you still haven’t explained why (as Abb1 again asks) you are presenting a general case about everyone who say, oppresses women (that touchstone of American values! Just ask the people at the Lingerie Bowl…), when you keep appending it to the word “muslim”. You specifically want this issue to focus on MUSLIMS who oppress women (or kill apostates, or whatever) when we know other groups do this too. There is footage available of Jewish men throwing chairs at woman at the wailing wall. Is that sufficient evidence for me to bomb Israel? Why do you have to append a general problem to a specific group?

And, Martin Amis’s article wasn’t exactly a general tract about women’s rights was it?

And, your final argument seems to be very much along the lines of “see, it’s true that they’re savages! If it’s true I can’t possibly be racist!” You do know the company you’re keeping with that don’t you? Or are you just blissfully ignorant of the history of racist politics?

44

john b 11.22.07 at 2:06 pm

“If I say ‘all blacks are subhuman ’ because I falsely and without good evidence believe that they are not homo sapiens and are modern form of home erectus, I am not stereotyping anyone”

Yes you are – you’re stereotyping blacks as subhuman.

“But one can also stereotype without being racist : if I say ‘all Americans are fat’ I am stereotyping Americans but I am not being racist : stereotyping is not sufficient.”

The only reason that isn’t racist is because ‘American’ isn’t a race. If you said “all blacks are fat”, that would indeed be both stereotyping and racist…

45

abb1 11.22.07 at 2:10 pm

If it’s true that stereotyping is not necessary, it is irrelevant.

I’m not so sure that negative stereotyping is not sufficient. “All Americans are fat” is not an example of stereotyping, it’s a factual statement that can easily be refuted. But if you said, for example (and meant it): “the Italians are lazy” – I think that would sound kinda racist.

Now, people say these kinds of things all the time, negative stereotyping is very common, and I’m sure I am guilty of it myself (“the French are so rude!”), but I think most people don’t really mean it and will realize their mistake when called on it.

46

zdenek v 11.22.07 at 2:22 pm

re 45. stereotyping involves essentially generalizing . I notice that some Americans are fat and I conclude that all Americans are fat. But to say ‘all blacks are not homo sapiens’ is not a generalization from ‘ some blacks are not homo sapiens’. The racist is not generalizing at all in this case : she is making a false empirical claim about all black people. As I said since this still counts as racism we need a different explanation why the view is racist.

47

adam 11.22.07 at 10:54 pm

@abb1

Regarding:

“the evil shits in question want to penalise muslims and ONLY muslims for this thing you think is so terrible”

Nope. Try again. All that is requested is that the law apply to all equally.

Now you might prefer a different law. You might claim that all societies involved are predudiced, as you did. Thus you can absolve yourself of a responsibility to act and feed your self-rightousness (a twofer!).

But neither of these points is relevant.

48

SG 11.23.07 at 1:21 am

adam, if that is all that is requested, why are we talking exclusively about Muslims? And why are there 1 million dead Iraqis on the balance sheet of “equal application” of this “law”?

I suppose you think it is some cosmic coincidence?

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