There is much to talk about in Ian McEwan’s Solar. As I say in today’s Observer,he makes a hat tip to John Updike and allows the great issue of global warming to be explained through the devious manoeuvres of a slobby and disreputable hero, Michael Beard. However, McEwan goes to some trouble to show that there are worse people in the world than Beard by sending him to meet a postmodern audience at the Institute of Contemporary Arts.
Like Lawrence Summers at Harvard, Beard had incautiously suggested that there may – just may – be evolutionary reasons for gender differences in the average intellectual aptitudes of men and women. The press denounce him as a Nazi and a eugenicist, and he agrees to appear at the ICA to defend himself. In an acid scene, McEwan shows that London followers of post-modernism are as contemptuous of the scientific method and as potentially racist as Alaskan followers of Sarah Palin.
“When he mentioned the metastudies reporting that girls’ language skills were greater on average than boys’, there was a roar of derision and a speaker on the platform rose fearsomely to denounce him for the ‘crude objectivism by which he seeks to maintain and advance the social dominance of the white male elite’. The moment the fellow sat down he was rewarded with the kind of cheers that might presage a revolution. Bewildered, Beard did not get the connection. He was completely lost. When, later, he irritably demanded of the meeting if it thought that gravity too was a social construct, he was booed, and a woman in the audience stood to propose in stern headmistressly tones, that he reflect on the ‘hegemonic arrogance’ of his question.”
Beard’s opponent is a Jewish academic who respects the scientific literature and explains nervously why he is misreading it. Even though she is against the hated Beard, the ICA turns against her, for reasons you may be able to guess.
“From the point of view of the audience, which seemed to be of one mind in all things, she had points in her favour and points against. As a woman she was a poor hegemon, and being unconfident poorer still. (Beard thought that he was getting the hang of this term.) On the other hand she was a Jew, an Israeli and, by association, an oppressor of the Palestinians. Perhaps she was a Zionist, perhaps she had served in the army. And once she got underway, the hostility in the room began to grow. This was a postmodern crowd with well-developed antennae for the unacceptable line. Its heart, when not seized by correct utterance from correct quarters, turned cold.”
I don’t want to second-guess McEwan, but I am as sure as I can be that the scene had its origins in a confrontation between the ICA crowd and the comedian Chris Morris on one side and my Observer colleague Andrew Anthony and Martin Amis on the other. By good fortune, Padraig Reidy of Index on Censorship was in the hall and wrote a fine piece about it in the Guardian.
“And you’re saying they [Islamists] are all murderers,” he [Morris] jabbed.
“I think Islamists subscribe to a murderous ideology,” parried Amis.
“So you mean they’re all murderers?”
“No, but I believe the ideology they subscribe to is murderous.”
This continued for what seemed like years, until Anthony deftly tagged Amis, and immediately set about the exposed belly of Morris’s argument.
“For example, [insert name of prominent member of MCB, well known to Guardian readers] supported Osama bin Laden right up to Sept 11 2001, a period including the Kenyan embassy bombings among others.”
Morris, on the ropes, threw out the last lunge any southpaw can in these situations: “Well we supported Saddam Hussein.”
At this point, your humble hack had to consider. Did “we”, Chris? I certainly didn’t, and I don’t remember you doing it. Maybe you did, on your LBC show. I dunno, I didn’t live in England then, so I may have missed it.
This was the signal for everyone else to bail in, raining shibboleths down with great fury: Israel, they cried. What about Israel? Won’t somebody think of the Palestinians! This, of course, despite the fact that I don’t ever remember Amis or Anthony saying anything anti-Palestinian. Remember – this is the liberal world, where disagreeing with Islamism is the same as hating Palestinians. Because, in this world, Palestinians aren’t people – they’re a rhetorical device. You’ll score points in every argument as soon as you mention them.
Amis attempted to rally with a quick point about Israel being surrounded by hostile countries, but Morris slapped him down with the unanswerable “Oh my God, he’s defending Israel now”. Alas, in defending Israel, the once mighty pocket dynamo Amis had forgotten to defend himself. He reeled against the ropes, exposed. Badly exposed.
Then, the final hammer blow. A grizzled old heavyweight rose, extended an arm in Amis’s direction, and proclaimed to the audience “You could read views like this man’s in the Daily Telegraph!” With this, the fight was over. 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.
With the thorough pounding complete, the undisputed belt of righteousness was retained, and the good people of liberal England could go home happy that their great white hope, Chris “Killah” Morris, had vanquished the bad, bad men with their bad, bad ideas.
Arena had commissioned me to a write a profile of Amis, so I read Reidy’s piece, found a recording of the meeting and talked to a few principled people present. They were struck by a moment when Amis tried to get the postmodernists to see that they were failing in their duty to stand up to totalitarianism. I described it here
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.
That a mere third of an ICA audience was intellectually self-confident enough to say they were morally superior to the Taliban has now passed into democratic-left mythology. People who have never read my profile tell me about it as if it ought to be news to me. Now McEwan has taken the confrontation and turned the ICA into a symbol of ignorance and prejudice.
From the ICA’s point of view, this must seem horribly unfair. I know good people who work there and know too that it holds serious debates. The process by which one ill-tempered meeting in the autumn of 2007 has come to stand for a whole compromised intellectual culture, must also seem to the ICA to be so random as to be incomprehensible. If Reidy had not been in the audience, if Arena had not commissioned me to write a profile of Amis, if McEwan had not been Amis’s friend, then the meeting would have been forgotten.
Unfair and accidental, the Institute’s notoriety may be, but it remains justifiable for two reasons.
1. If supposed liberals refuse to oppose movements that are “irrationalist, misogynist, homophobic, inquisitional, totalitarian, imperialist and genocidal,” it is always worth condemning them wherever and however they do it.
2. The collapse in liberal principles in the past decade has been so widespread that one vignette was bound to become a representation of the wider disintegration. The ill repute of the ICA may be accidental, but it was an accident waiting to happen.