KR BlogEthics

Martin Amis: The Most Hated Man in Britain?

This post is the work of Rob Kunzig, an English major at Kenyon College. He also blogs here.–TM

Despite almost a year of good behavior, controversy has found Martin Amis once again, with allegations of racism prompted by remarks made during a TV interview. Of course it has. What’s surprising is the magnitude of the responding furor. A small vanguard of supporters, among them Christopher Hitchens and Ian McEwan, is all that stands between Amis and a lynching mob.

The self-styled enfant terrible of British literature, emerging from the lurid shadow of 2003’s turgid Yellow Dog, decided to launch himself headlong into relevance by tackling Radical Islam. In a series of 2005 articles published in The Guardian, Amis coined “Horrorism”–terrorism plus; “maximum malevolence;” “summary injustice”–and wrote a short story depicting Mohammed Atta on the morning of 9/11.

While “Horrorism” certainly wrinkled some noses, Amis acquitted himself reasonably well. He even published House of Meetings, a remarkable book about two brothers in one of Stalin’s gulags. With a contract for two more and a professorship at the University of Manchester, he seemed to be settling, however awkwardly, into respectability.

Until, of course, he declared himself “morally superior” to Muslim states, which were “less evolved” than the western world. He fended off prior allegations of racism by calling Muslims the “real racists, misogynists and homophobes.” “Islamicism,” a hostile ideology within a religion, was his target; not, he claimed, Islam in general.

The retaliation was swift and overwhelming. In “Shame on us,” Ronan Bennett scolded the English intellectual community for giving Amis too much leeway as a novelist, and letting him “get away with it;” Chris Morris wrote a follow-up piece “The absurd world of Martin Amis,” festooned with polemics and character assassination. Terry Eagleton, fellow Professor at Manchester, attacked him in the introduction to his book Ideology: An Introduction. The Elegant Variation laid into Christopher Hitchens for even daring to defend Amis’ remarks, going so far as to suggest that the defense weakened Hitchens’ intellectual credibility.

Hitchens would step up to bat for Voldemort, but his defense of Amis was more than knee-jerk contrarianism. He took the battle to semantics. “Racism,” he argues, is inaccurate–race, per se, has nothing to do with it. Amis’ target was an ideological and political structure. While allowing Bennett a few precious inches on “Islamicism”–the ???isms do get a bit ridiculous–he accuses him of enlisting the “Muslim dead from Iraq to Afghanistan.”

“How dare he? Has he even begun to tot up the number of Muslims murdered by the Taliban? Or the total slaughtered in Iraq since al-Qaida began its campaign to level the Shi’a mosques? Does he think that the forces of the Northern Alliance, or the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, who fight on “our” side against barbarism, are somehow inauthentic Muslims because they prefer Bush and Blair to Mullah Omar or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi?”

This, of course, prompts TEV to lament Hitchens’ “deterioration.” Really–is Hitchens’ argument so illogical?

Maybe not. In a recent interview with The New York Times Book Review, McEwan also found cause to stand up for Amis:

NYTBR: Your fellow novelist Martin Amis is being shredded in the British press after criticizing various aspects of Islam.

McEwan: He was attacked in The Guardian, in a shrill manner. All religions make very big claims about the world, and it should be possible in an open society to dispute them. It should be possible to say, “I find some ideas in Islam questionable” without being called a racist.

NYTBR: Which ideas do you mean?

McEwan: Well, the idea that any apostate should be punished is revolting. This is completely hostile to the notion of free thought and everything we hope to stand for. I think Martin has suffered terribly at the hands of The Guardian.

While Hitchens’ reputation as the voice of reason is less than sterling, McEwan is more sagacious, and bases his defense on the sanctity of free speech. Bennett asks us why we allow Amis to be Amis; McEwan sees it as our moral duty.

The problem becomes one of labels. If Amis is guilty of anything, it’s not “Racism;” if there’s anything this snowball fight has proven, it’s the insufficiency of isms, be it Horror-, Islam-, or race-. Even if Bennett is right–and I’m not saying he is–Hitchens and McEwan are right, too. No matter how hamfisted his attempts at cultural critique, he has a right to make them, and we have an obligation to let him. Sorry, Bennett. No shame here.

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The Kenyon Review Associates Program provides Kenyon students with valuable experience in literary editing, publishing, and programming. KR Associates work closely with Kenyon Review staff, gaining valuable experience in a number of editing, publishing, and programming areas including manuscript evaluation, publicity and marketing, copy editing, developing web site and social media content, outreach programming, event planning and promotion, and other creative and editorial projects

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