Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Sunday, June 22, 2008

McEwan's silence

Richard Seymour of Lenin's Tomb asks: "Is it possible to survey Britain's most celebrated littérateurs and not find them repulsive?". Based on their novels alone, the answer has to be a resounding NO! But that's not what provoked our blogger's question. It's in response to Ian McEwan's latest interview in which he defends his "dear friend" Martin Amis from vaguely attributed accusations of racism. Along the way he reveals that "I myself despise Islamism". While Seymour answers better than anyone what McEwan says, I'll take issue with what he doesn't.

However "controversial" Amis's comments or "brave" McEwan's position on the indigenous culture of neo-colonies, both are red herrings. Nowhere in this interview does McEwan express any regret, let alone horror and shame, at his nation's responsibility for the deaths of more than a million people in Iraq and Afghanistan. (There's not a word about his fictionalised apologetics either). One would have thought the continuing aggression of the most powerful army in the history of mankind and its allies would be more pressing than media-enabled paranoia about a foreign religion. In the last century, should the population of Weimar have been more concerned with rumours of Jewish "blood libels" than what was being carried out in their name just up the road?

While McEwan asks for his fellow subjects to start "to reflect on Englishness: this is the country of Shakespeare, of Milton, Newton, Darwin", he does not reflect that this is also the country of Prince "Bomber" Harry, a member of the English royal family involved in military attacks on civilians. During his time in Afghanistan, he is said to have guided fighter jets "towards suspected Taliban targets". In mitigation, McEwan can, with the rest of us, claim not to know what is really happening. After all, the London media that fawns over each of his claustrophobic and inorganic novels tends not to report that the "suspected Taliban" are often women, children, wedding parties and even herds of sheep. (Maybe we'd hear more about it if they lived in tower blocks).

All in all, it's a depressing lurch to the right. Twenty-five years ago, McEwan wrote the screenplay to The Ploughman's Lunch, a film that went against the political grain of the time. It showed in negative light Thatcherism's "promotion of self-interest, of ruthless dedication to obtain a desired goal". The main character is James Penfield, a social-climbing journalist played by Jonathan Pryce. He is writing a revisionist history of Britain's imperial adventure at Suez in 1956 in order to curry favour. As Channel 4's feature says, he is "keen to keep his political paymasters happy [by adopting] an extremely right-wing, partisan tone." There's a memorable scene at the end in which Pryce walks around the floor of the Conservative Party conference during Michael Heseltine's rallying speech. This was the famous post-Falklands War conference with the stage at the Brighton Centre designed to resemble the bridge of a battleship. It is as if Penfield is surveying the ruins of his own victory. As a person, he is empty; hollowed out by ambition. At the time I recall being struck by his definition of professionalism: "knowing instinctively what you can and cannot do".

Take a look The Afghan Victim Memorial Project and then try to curl up with the latest award-winning unit from one of our most celebrated literary professionals.

9 comments:

  1. McEwan's luxuriously naive views on the Iraq atrocity (that mounting pile of, what, a million? disposably brown bodies), as allegorized in Saturday, taint his *reasonable* position on what is a *murderously* illiberal Belief System. I don't see what's difficult (or paradoxical) about abhorring Islamism locally and Coca Colaism globally; the latter crafts megadeaths, but that doesn't make the former tolerable.

    The "Left" forming a ring of rhetorical solidarity around a Queer-hating, Woman-dehumanizing, pleasure-criminalizing death cult who make The Boers look like The Beatles in comparison, is the kind of Kafkan (I'm tired of the other adjectival form) joke the world can't seem to get enough of.

    One really *can* be anti-Bush and anti-Taliban simultaneously; the slogans become admittedly more complex (and less fun) then, of course...

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  2. I've a short coincidental piece, here if interested, or even if not.

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  3. I read this post last night. I knew that if I checked in this morning, there'd be just such a comment from Steven Augustine. Do you have macros programmed for this kind of thing? What is so hard about this?

    "The "Left" forming a ring of rhetorical solidarity around a Queer-hating, Woman-dehumanizing, pleasure-criminalizing death cult who make The Boers look like The Beatles in comparison, is the kind of Kafkan (I'm tired of the other adjectival form) joke the world can't seem to get enough of."

    This is utter nonsense. The Left (or "Left" if you prefer) does, and has done, no such thing. What Defenders of Western Civilization continually (one would have to think intentionally) fail to notice is the responsibility those of us in the West have for the actions carried out by our own governments (which actions are incidentally explicitly linked to the rise of political Islam). These actions we can have some--if, alas, negligible--influence on. Whatever it is the Taliban is up to, we can have no effect on (except, it seems, where we call for those same untrustworthy governments to kill them for us, lest they come for us in our sleep). It is vastly more important that we concern ourselves with the former. But, sure, we can sit back and "oppose" the Taliban (or the apparently dark forces of illiberalism generally). Where does that get us? And why must such "opposition" always (always) come clothed in the worst sort of racist twaddle, always in the form of calls for collective punishment?

    Liberals are always appalled when leftists don't leaven their criticisms of the US or Britain with either an acknowledgement that the official enemy is also pretty bad (possibly even as bad as the Nazis!), or with some sort of statement recognizing the US as the Best Place in the World Ever, or the like. Tough shit.

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  4. Richard:

    Wow... if only you'd read my comment before activating your shareware anti-Steven-Augustine comment-generator, you'd have noticed that the West's culpability for megadeath-scale-atrocities was a substantial feature of my argument.

    I'm no defender of "Western Civilization". Really: can you bloody *read*?

    "Liberals are always appalled when leftists don't leaven their criticisms of the US or Britain with either an acknowledgement that the official enemy is also pretty bad (possibly even as bad as the Nazis!), or with some sort of statement recognizing the US as the Best Place in the World Ever, or the like."

    I happen to think the U.S. is a tarted-up "third world" hell-hole, chum (and I lived there for a couple of decades, though not now, so I should know); and the "new" Nazis happen to inhabit the White House (and have since Reagan): does that mean I should turn a blind eye (or the simperingly patronizing smile of cultural relativism) as some guy slits his daughter's throat for flirting?

    Argue with A) logic or B) persuasive data or C) a combination thereof, please.

    "But, sure, we can sit back and "oppose" the Taliban (or the apparently dark forces of illiberalism generally). Where does that get us?"

    Well, for one thing, we can make a difference in the lives of girls/women who've run afoul of Sharia's edicts while on European soil. Save a few lives, perhaps? Or isn't that worth it on the grand scale of your geopolitical vision? Or perhaps you don't consider women truly human, either... ?

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  5. Yes, Steven, I read your comment. I noticed the passing reference to McEwan's blindness when it comes to Iraq. Congratulations. That doesn't change a thing. Your first comment has little to do with the substance of the original post, and your second comment ignores the substance of my comment. So I see no need to respond to you.

    In any event, it was only a matter of time before you got around to wondering if, "perhaps", I, too, "don't consider women truly human". Awesome.

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  6. As an independent observer - and someone who loathes the smug McEwan for any number of reasons - I can see some truth on both sides here.

    It is, for example, demonstrably true that elements of the left have been defending Islamism for some time. See the Respect Party, George Galloway, the SWP, the 'we are all Hezbollah' banners at marches. It is a problem, and it ought to be possible to discuss that sensibly without an either/or dynamic developing. Opposing the Taliban, Islamism, faith schools or whatever does not automatically mean defending the Iraq war, capitalism or George W Bush, unless you believe that your enemy's enemy automatically becomes your friend. Orwell, of course, was very good on where this gets you.

    Incidentally, political Islam is at least fifty years old as a doctrine and, while opposition to 'the West' is certainly a motivating factor, much of the impetus for it, as with Al Qaeda, actually came from an opposition to 'unIslamic' regimes in the middle east. Propped up by the West, of course; but this is an existential, cultural opposition and would doubtless remain even if we pulled all of our troops out of the region and mediated an Israel /Palestine solution (all of which we should nonetheless be doing).

    It is also the case that it ought to be possible to dislike Islam as a religion, and to say so - just as one might dislike Christianity - as a principled, left wing position. Indeed, there was a time when political radicals of the left were suspicious of all monotheistic religions. As Kenan Malik pointed out on Radio 4's 'Start the Week' yesterday, the word 'radical' in the Asian community in Britain today has come to mean 'extremely conservative' - whereas when he was young, calling himself 'radical' defined him as a secular leftist: the more traditional use of the word.

    Nonethless, it is also obviously the case that when McEwan talks about 'Englishness' he is talking about a tiresomely Establishment version of the English story, and that his predictable position on Islam is a shield for his views on Iraq - which he is too much of a coward to say he supports openly.

    The sooner the literary editors get off their knees and start delivering McEwan the critical panning he deserves, the better.

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  7. Paul: you are of course right that political Islam, in its many different forms, has been specifically a response to the regimes in the Middle East. But it's not just that the West has "propped up" these regimes. In many cases, the West specifically created them. The conflict would remain if we left the region, but it can change for the better only if we do so. (Of course, "leaving the region" doesn't mean we abdicate responsibility. Quite the opposite. We should finally take responsibility. I should think that after decades of destroying various indigenous left-wing movements--and taking seriously only those most repressive elements--the West owes the region quite a lot of free, agenda-less assistance.)

    The problem I have with these "debates" is that no one is saying anyone has to like Islam, or find its repressive manifestations tolerable. The question is what there is to do about it, and what value opposition has. McEwan and Amis are being criticised not because they find certain illiberal practices odious, but because they lump all manifestations of Islam (all Muslims, in fact), under the umbrella term "Islamism", and then employ various tired racist and Orientalist tropes in their subsequent complaints. You have done something similar to the former (without resorting to these tropes): you implicitly link Hezbollah with the Taliban. Hezbollah is not the Taliban. I'm not all that knowledgable about George Galloway or Respect, but when Respect flies a banner "We are all Hezbollah" it presumably does not mean "We subscribe to everything Hezbollah currently stands for or claims to believe in" but rather "Hezbollah is fighting against an unwarranted, illegal attack; we support them in their defense against it" or something like it. Similarly, you may recall that after 9/11 Le Monde ran a headline reading "We are all Americans". Does this mean that Le Monde were now fans ("supporters") of George Bush, of the American Christian Right, of the abysmal US healthcare system, of the US role as capitalist enforcer, of the prison industry, the drug war, and on and on? I strongly doubt it!

    I happen to believe that certain groups, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, are subject to influence. I think the record shows a certain willingness to back off some of their more extreme positions. The best way to continue this process is, oddly enough, not endless war and impoverishment. People tend not to be so open-minded and liberal when they are constantly under seige and perhaps can't feed themselves or find stable shelter.

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  8. Well, Hezbollah and the Taliban are both Islamist political groupings, so they have that in common. But you are right to suggest that in other ways they are very different, and I'm not trying to suggest that all Islamic parties are the same.

    What I'm getting at is the unquestioning support by some on the left (you should read up on Galloway and Respect, by the way: they've had a disastrous impact on the left in the UK) for any organisation which shouts about its opposition to US imperialism, without examining too closely what else it is shouting about.

    That said, talking about 'the left' in too broad brush a fashion can also land us in hot water.

    I never liked that le Monde headline, by the way. It made me think: 'speak for yourself'!

    www.paulkingsnorth.net

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  9. "One would have thought the continuing aggression of the most powerful army in the history of mankind and its allies would be more pressing than media-enabled paranoia about a foreign religion. In the last century, should the population of Weimar have been more concerned with rumours of Jewish "blood libels" than what was being carried out in their name just up the road?"

    That's the one essential point in a nutshell.

    But another thing may be worth stressing here: McEwan, a literary artist, was saying this in defence of Amis, another literary artist. Now, it's nice, no doubt, when people stick up for their mates; but writers do neither themselves nor their writer-mates any favours at all when they insist on helping them to eradicate their own talent. That's not solidarity, it's partnership in crime. Amis's grotesquely boring, boringly grotesque fantasy about a chronically-constipated Mohammed Atta was simply indefensable as an artwork; and that artistic disaster was a direct result of Amis's paranoia about real Muslim men in real Middle Eastern countries, who (he told us with a criminally straight face) yearned secretly to slaughter him and his blond children.

    Both McEwan and Amis have given us at least one book each that was well worth having: 'The Innocent' and 'Experience', respectively.
    Ian McEwan gave us many other books worth having before that, and he is certainly a far superior artist to Martin Amis. But it is no accident that they both did their best work well before 9/11, and that they have both been in steep decline ever since. No other event in recent history has scrambled more brains more effectively. That's just one of the things it was good for.

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