Tuesday, 15 April 2008


At the end of last year I saw Martin Amis speaking in a ‘Literature and Terrorism’ debate at Manchester Uni, and two things about the night made an impression. The first thing that struck me was that Amis is an almost laughably small man, providing a sort of poignant proof for the axiom about the startling diminutiveness of famous people. Seeing him on the stairs outside the lecture hall, after he had just fielded the inevitable staunch criticism from fellow speakers for his recent advocacy of neo-con politics, he looked lonely and slightly out of place, not at all comfortable in his latest role as an under-fire political cause-celebre in this archetype of northern red-brick normality, seemingly rather pathetically cut loose from the urbane, metropolitan world he ordinarily inhabits.

The second thing I remember, and the thing most relevant to the present discussion, is Amis trying to prove the point, now quite fashionable in political and cultural circles, that the Western left-wing intelligentsia has become woolly and relativist to the extent that it will routinely show misguided sympathy for such decidedly anti-humanitarian causes as Saddam Hussein, Palestinian terrorism, suicide bombers and the like.

Amis related an anecdote about another recent speaking event, at which he asked audience members to indicate if they felt they were ‘morally superior’ to the Taliban, a request that was met with bafflement, unease, and apparently only a smattering of raised hands. When the same question was posed of Nazi Germany, of course, the response was almost unanimous.

It seemed to me at the time that this was all a bit silly. ‘Morally superior’ is exactly the sort of reductive, chauvinistic slogan debates as vital and delicate as this can do without. Moreover, as a phrase it seems to epitomise the kind of cantankerous mid-twentieth-century-radicalism-grown-reactionary militancy currently favoured by Amis, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and their ilk. Making statements like this, Amis came across as stubborn and upper-class snobbish, looking a bit foolish beside his co-speakers, whose arguments were, I thought, much more nuanced and sensitive to the demands of a mind-bendingly complex issue.

Nevertheless, Amis’s assertion of the need for principled affirmative statements in the context of the present volatile international climate is perhaps not one that should be dismissed out of hand, even if his particular choice of wording was unfortunate. Amis quoted DeLillo’s now famous argument in Mao II, an argument which states that terrorists, with their ‘new tragic narratives’, have appropriated cultural authority from novelists. For Amis, if I’m not misinterpreting things too much, the task of the post-9/11 novelist (and presumably that of other artistic and cultural figures) must therefore be to take back this authority from the terrorist, and not to let a fear of sounding old-fashioned, absolutist and moralistic prevent you from making firm proclamations of belief. Fundamentalism in all its various manifestations, so the line goes, is not likely to be efficaciously countered by guilty liberal ambiguity and cavilled, sitting-on-the-fence rhetoric.

This seems to me to be a more than reasonable assertion, and you might want to view the post below on Thatcher in light of this.

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