Sunday, June 22, 2008

McEwan's Bitter

Is it possible to survey Britain's most celebrated littérateurs and not find them repulsive? Take Ian McEwan, for example. Today, he is standing up for his friend Martin Amis. By his lights, Amis is maligned because of his opinions about something called 'Islamism'. "It should be possible," McEwan avouches, "to say, 'I find some ideas in Islam questionable' without being called a racist." But say so and "immediately someone on the left leaps to his feet and claims that because the majority of Muslims are dark-skinned, he who criticises it is racist." Whatever else McEwan can be accused of, he can be acquitted of any precision in his thought, right away. 'Islamism', Islam, medieval this, intolerance that, and so on and on - McEwan accessing a chain of associations in such a way as to make it obvious that he hasn't a clue what each term actually refers to. We can also dismiss any charge that he has an active imagination (as opposed to an active fantasy life), since he didn't actually think any of this up for himself - every trope was contrived for him by imperial ideologists, beginning at least 200 years ago with the emergence of doctrines of Aryanism.

But McEwan is certainly devious, or at least disingenuous. As I recall it, what Amis said was: "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 let 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." He also added a good many ruminations about the "rank and file Muslim male" (lacking intellectual curiosity), the different strands of Islam (Shi'ism romantic and dreamy, Sunnism orthodox and strict), the Muslim population (they're rutting incessantly and gaining on us), and a great deal else besides. "We are hearing from Islam", he averred. This is only a critique of 'Islamism' if, as I suspect is the case, both Amis and McEwan think 'Islamism' is nothing other than the political mode of an Islam that is univocally reactionary, intolerant, medieval...

Fittingly, McEwan also waxes sentimental about "Englishness" - as in, "this is the country of Shakespeare, of Milton, Newton, Darwin...". Don't you hear the echoes of John Major and Andrew Rosindell MP? Romantic nationalism of this variety never alights on other treasures of the past. This is also the country of Clive, and Wellington, and Castlereagh. It is the country of lithium-popping colonists in fancy dress, butchering 'coolies' and kicking their servants and wives to death. It is the country whose ruling class almost unanimously adored Hitler until he trod on their toes. It is the country of serfdom and Enclosure Acts, of state terror and slavery, the country whose noble inventions include the concentration camp and the machine gun. It is the country with more experience than any other in dehumanising the "dark-skinned", the better to brutally slaughter them. But that is the trouble. You can't descend into a senescent fantasy about "Englishness" for long before some lefty "leaps to his feet" and declares it a senescent fantasy. And if these censorious politically correct thugs succeed in their intellectual terrorism? Why then, no one will ever be able to say "this is the country of Amis, of McEwan...".

Update: McEwan's silence.