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 me 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
Are you a Labour supporter, the interviewer asks Gwyn.
Of course, thought Richard, yeah of course. Gwyn was Labour. It was obvious. Obvious not from the ripply cornices 20 feet above their heads, not from the brass lamps or the military plumpness of the leather-topped desk. Obvious because Gwyn was what he was, a writer, in England, at the end of the 20th century. There was nothing else for such a person to be. Richard was Labour, equally obviously. It often seemed to him, moving in the circles he moved in and reading what he read, that everyone in the land was Labour, except the Government. All writers, all book people were Labour, which was one of the reasons why they got on so well.
Today’s Gwyn Barrys aren’t Labour now – Tony Blair and the second Iraq war saw to that – but their herd instinct is as insistent as ever. In Amis’s case, the herd chewed the cud and with a triumphant moo concluded that he was ‘a racist’. Like Sir Kingsley Amis, his father, he is meant to have gone from Left and ended up a bigot of the crassest sort.
Here’s how they stitched him up.
In the summer of 2006, the Metropolitan Police announced that 25 people had been arrested in connection with a plot to used liquid explosives to murder about 3000 people and destroy 10 aircraft. Flying became more of a pain than ever as airports banned passengers from taking all but tiny amounts of liquid onto planes. The British government cut its ties with the unelected leaders of the Muslim Council of Britain after they failed to condemn mass murder unequivocally and chose instead to blame British foreign policy for terrorism. John Reid, the then Home Secretary, described their statement as ‘a dreadful misjudgement’. The former Conservative leader Michael Howard described it as ‘a form of blackmail’ – change your foreign policy or your aircraft get it.
In an interview a few days later, Amis joined the politicians
There’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? – to say, “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. They hate us for letting our children have sex and take drugs – well, they’ve got to stop their children killing people. It’s a huge dereliction on their part. I suppose they justify it on the grounds that they have suffered from state terrorism in the past, but I don’t think that’s wholly irrational. It’s their own past they’re pissed off about; their great decline. It’s also masculinity, isn’t it?”
If I were a British Muslim, I don’t suppose I’d be happy to read this. I hope I’d retain enough composure to notice that Amis was talking about an urge felt after the revelation that a crime against humanity had just been foiled; that the urge passed and that Amis had not, in fact, gone on to demand discriminatory measures against anyone. Maybe I’d also notice something else: the interview was published in September 2006 and then vanished from the public consciousness. There was no fuss, no controversy, no outraged denunciations in the liberal press, nothing until October 2007 when Terry Eagleton, a quasi-Marxist professor, announced that, ‘In an essay entitled The Age of Horrorism published last month, the novelist Martin Amis advocated a deliberate programme of harassing the Muslim community in Britain.’
‘That was three mistakes in the first sentence,’ Amis drawled. ‘It wasn’t an essay, it didn’t appear the month before and I didn’t advocate the deliberate harassing of Muslims. ‘
Schoolboy errors from a professor of literature no less, were, of course, not sloppy mistakes but the point of the exercise. Amis was out of step and had to be turned from an interesting thinker who should be treated with a minimum of good manners into the advocate of a racist, police state who could expect nothing but howling abuse. It’s no good that he tells me as he has told anyone else who will listen that ‘despite all its faults, despite a million ills Britain is an extraordinary successful multi-racial society, and I love it because all novelists love variety’. He has been damned and will have to live with his damnation for the rest of his days.
He’s not angry about it. He’s not bellowing out great rants or not in the presence of journalists anyway. Writers can turn their enemies into material, and Amis is now fascinated by ideologues such as Eagleton and all those who have bayed along with him in the pages of the Guardian and Independent. Journalists have made knowing remarks about how the professor had a book out, and a controversy would do its sales no harm. Amis finds their explanation too shallow.
‘That’s just ordinary the cynical calculation. It’s a drag being a cynic, it’s like being a snob or a racist, you’re always on duty finding reasons for being cynical, but I can understand how that type of cynicism works, These kind of attacks are something more than “I’ve got a book coming out and I want a bit attention”. It’s a super-cynicism, the cynicism that says “sling the charges out there. It doesn’t matter if he didn’t really say it. It will stick them to him, and I will get the approval of my peer group.”
‘If you’re ideological you’ve got two people living with you the cheer-leader and the commissar, the frowning commissar. The cheerleader kisses you and the commissar pats on you on the back for doing what’s necessary to uphold the party line. To be ideological means to fear individuality. You must see safety in numbers, in the herd, so your vanity is always protected. The ideologue can’t live by himself; he needs the validation of the like-minded.’
If you know Amis’s world, you will also know that he’s right. Comedians who shriek ‘ohmigod he’s supporting Israel!’ expect only applause for defending the faithful against the heretic. They would be shocked if their own congregation doubted or cross-questioned them before concurring. Their condemnations are social, not intellectual.
I once asked Christopher Hitchens about the conformity of modern liberal life; why it was that when you talked to them you wouldn’t merely know their opinion on one thing but on everything. Hitchens thought the politically committed fear that if they stepped out of line on one issue, stopped believing that, say, the comprehensive school system was a good idea they would indeed change their minds on everything; that their leftish political personality was like a badly woven rug which would unravel if one thread came loose.
HE MAY HAVE been speaking truer than he knew about Amis. Money, the portrait of John Self, a porn obsessed, junk-food guzzling monster, turned him from being a successful Eighties’ writer into a star. As he and everyone else said, the attack was inspired by the greed of the age of Thatcher.
Looking back, he now wonders whether he and many other artists of the period got Thatcher wrong.
‘I’ve a lot of faith in the British people,’ he told me. ‘I think we’re a good lot on the whole. The only time I hated England was in the class war of the Seventies when there war real sense of bloody mindedness, a deep disobligingness, an almost a Soviet view of “what’s in it for me”. That stopped with Thatcher, bloodily, but it did stop. She’s amazing for ending the class system and the union system. She disidentified the Conservative Party from the old aristocracy with her Keiths and her Normans and her Cecils and at the same time neutralised unions. So she worked both ends of the spectrum in what seems to have been a sanitary way. Britain is no longer a class society.’
At this point the PR man in me wanted to cry ‘steady on, Martin’. It’s one thing taking on the Left about its appeasement of fascistic movements and regimes, quite another to say that Thatcher wasn’t so bad after all. He was inviting everyone who’s never read him to say plain Martin was metamorphosing into Sir Kingsley – Thatcher’s strongest literary supporter.
Then it struck me he didn’t care what was said. His home dominated by his two daughters from his happy second marriage. The only time his mind wanders is when he thinks it’s time to get their tea. They repay his affection by bossing him about whenever he tries to light up – ‘they can get away with being little authoritarians about it because they know they’re right,’ he sighs. His sons from his first marriage are men now, and he enjoys their company too
When they were young, he worried about global nuclear war. Now he thinks about the small, half-forgotten conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 and what it may foretell for his daughters’ future.
‘Part of the crisis in the world is a crisis of weaponry and that strange neurotic war showed it,’ he says. ‘The Israelis are very impressed by the rockets that are coming in from Lebanon because they know that in 10 or 12 years time there will be much better rockets and some of them will have dirty warheads supplied by Iran. Israel for that reason is going to cease to be habitable.’
Maybe not only Israelis, I mutter to myself, and was as sure as I could be that at some level Amis’s many critics have been struck the same thought. The hubbub he and writers like are provoking strikes me as a symptom of a buried fear. ‘If only we don’t incite them,’ the cowardly voice at the back of the head whispers. ‘If only liberals of all religions and none don’t raise their hands and say we are morally superior to men who would subjugate the women, kill the homosexuals, kill the unbelievers, kill the Jews, kill the apostates…kill everyone who doesn’t agree with them. Then the psychopaths will leave us alone and we will be safe.’
On my way out I wondered if Amis was learning to be careful about what he says now that he is a public figure in a political controversy, and was cheered by his reply.
‘I hope not,’ he said. ‘I hope I will still be able to talk as someone who is basically a novelist. I don’t want to have to court opinion. I don’t want to have to watch my words like a politician.
‘Hitchens loves it when he finds opposition in an audience. I thought I had absolutely no appetite for that. Now I find I do have a slight appetite for that. I’m prepared to be unpopular.’