November 26, 2007


Steven Augustine

Mark, I think I see rhetoricians on all sides of this argument swinging wildly at specific personalities rather than quietly debating the essential points...in other words, passionate ad hominems like "racist" and "Islamist" and "gasbag" have all but replaced a simple discussion of the facts.

Neither Hitchens's nor Amis's nor Eagleton's nor Bennet's moral triumphs/character flaws are proof of the justice/foolishness of any side of this argument, simply because these people aren't the real players on the stage. They are commenting, to a largely disinterested planet, from the sidelines, and what are we doing but commenting on the commenters?

Anyone genuinely interested in sorting this out should return this debate to the arena of its actual elements.

The real players (the "Western" and "Middle Eastern" men, both, with guns, bombs, zealous followers and body counts to manage) are busy making history while we literate types are so furiously involved with our little meta-narrative.

Does a child full of American-made shrapnel anywhere in Iraq today give a damn what Hitchens said? Between Mr. Amis's affect on world politics and that of the world-renown Angelina Jolie's, there's obviously no comparison, and anyone who thinks otherwise is clearly nostalgic for an earlier era.

I'm feeling fairly helpless when it comes to doing anything about the war in Iraq, or the plight of the Palestinians, or rampant anti-Semitism (disguised as anti-Israelism or anti-Neoconism) in the UK...

...but there's always hope that along with the possibly imminent regime change in Washington, legislators in such cities in the EU as are affected by the issues on this table will be a bit more clear-minded about protecting Free Speech, and prosecuting/preventing Human Rights Violations that conveniently cloak themselves as Cultural Inheritances.

I consider women to be human; how about you?

Sneer back in L.A. about all that if you want, but concerns about honor-killings, clitorectomies, forced marriages, and death threats against apostates and heretics both, et al, are what this issue boils down to for *Europeans* and various other types living over here. It's not about "race" (it's my understanding that most Arabs and Iranians, for example, are considered Caucasians, in any case)...it's not about language, music, mode of dress or cuisine.

This "debate" as it's waged polemically in the GU, by the way, is nothing but an extension of the Oedipal class war that rages on almost every issue in the UK (certainly re: books)...the positions staked out are issued at birth. It's a cyclone in a bedsit and signifies nothing. It's laughably similar to the era of verbal punchups (communism-vs-imperialism) during the reign of Stalin.

I don't want my daughter growing up in a Europe where a cartoonist/novelist/film maker can't twit an imaginary superbeing without genuine fear of losing her/his head to some illiterate's blade.

That anyone can construe that feeling as "racist" is beyond belief, in my opinion.


Hi Steven,

Actually, I'm not at all interested in changing the arena, as you have. My post is about one thing and one thing only, and that's Hitchens's failed rhetorical skills. It does not undertake to address or solve the problems of Islam and Europe - territory far beyond the brief of most litblogs. It's purely an assessment of Hitchens's complete degradation as a thinker and writer.

That said, it's worth remembering the reaction in the US when John Lennon posited that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, a reaction not dissimilar to the Danish cartoon episode. A fanatic is a fanatic but folks who kill abortion doctors aren't taken to represent American Christians.

Still, as I said, this isn't really about The World Crisis - it's about the complete disintegration of a once formidable mind.

John Shannon

Well put. Poor CH has been turning himself into a performing clown for a long time.


The thoughts on Hitchens are provocative. I think the larger point, though, is that Amis and anyone else should feel free to say whatever they'd like. This seems like one of an increasing number of cases in which liberals -- and I count myself as one -- seem to be arguing pretty vehemently against free speech. (The outcry against Amis has seemed, to me, less an argument against what he said than an argument that he should never have said it.)

As for fanaticism, which you mention in the post, I recently read this terrific definition of it, by George Santayana: "Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim."

Steven Augustine

"A fanatic is a fanatic but folks who kill abortion doctors aren't taken to represent American Christians."

Mark, the above point is arguable...quite a few around the world see Bush's various military activities as logical extensions of his awful religion. I've bent over backwards, I think, to make it clear that I'm not singling out Islam; I can't think of a single "terrorist" with Bush's potential for destruction.

I'd love the overall debate to move along far enough for us to deal with the *Superstition-Empowered Thantalogists* on this planet as more of a coalition than two sides of a struggle between good and evil...it's just that things are stuck at Square One, and there's all this pointless squabbling over whether Martin Amis is a racist or not.

Anyway, I can't see how I've gone *so* far off-piste with my comment, since it pertains to much of the Hitchens material you deal with here, but I'm not going to repay your good-faith response with grumbling...

And, yes, I do agree: the Hitchens tool is sadly blunt of late, and in many ways a cautionary tale about the life of a professional contrarian.

Steven Augustine


"Thanatologists" (Christ, I hate typos)


I'm very fond of Hitch (and Amis, for that matter) but thought his "thought experiment" defense was both chilling and lame -- I'm so glad for your able response. Lately, he seems committed to always working his proofs backwards: He knows the answer before he even starts, he only has to trump up some false reasoning to show how he got there.

After I read Hitch's piece I was thinking it should appear in a pamphlet alongside Irving's NYTBR review of the Gunter Grass biography, another well-meant but limping defense of a friend from this year.


You could make the case -- theoretically; I'm not making it here, though I'm tempted -- that Hitchens doesn't represent the dangers of being a contrarian as much as the danger of not being one. In other words, it's all well and good when Hitchens is raging and polemical if his targets are Kissinger, et al, but not so when he's going after those usually championed by the left. I'm not saying he's right about everything he's opining about these days, but I'd say the reaction to him can incriminate his audience as well as himself.

Steven Augustine


"In other words, it's all well and good when Hitchens is raging and polemical if his targets are Kissinger, et al, but not so when he's going after those usually championed by the left."

So true. He was a Contrarian Colossus when he executed the Mother Theresa Takedown, though, wasn't he? 603 readers around the world beshat themselves laughing...and the rest just sputtered, poleaxed and jawdropped. From that to the Paris Hilton apologia in less than a century: it hardly seems possible.

a very public sociologist

It is a shame Hitchens has gone over to the dark side, as he was a valued weapon in the left's armoury. Hopefully he'll repent and return to the fold one day, but I won't be holding my breath.


"Thus to accuse Martin Amis of being a racist is to say that he can't tell the difference between, say, one Irishman and another."

I took Hitchens to mean here that a racist is one who doesn't discriminate between an Irishman and, say, an IRA-man. That is, a racist would just lump them together, make all Irish suspect. And, presumably, that would go for Muslims and Islamist extremists, too. It may not be the epitome of rhetoric but it is, at least, clear. And I found it strange that it caused you such incredulity.

As for Amis, my opinion is that his comments were nothing more than bad taste. (He isn't a politician and he has no power to enact policy.) His tag of "thought experiment" may be pompous and even false, but as it was an unscripted comment, made by a man who earns his living at fiction, so it should surprise no one if he should "experiment" extemporaneously (and on the record) now and then.


I wasn't going to comment, but I love this blog, and I'd hate to see its readership misrepresented. I'm absolutely heartbroken over some of the comments I've read here, and seeing as how it's impossible for me to separate the offender from his apologists, by commenting I get a chance to speak to both.

Historically, when despots get to power they murder or keep close surveillance over their nation's writers and intellectuals. Why? Because the poets and cultural critics have the ability to stir action against bad government or, in this case, the almost two million innocent Muslims living in Britain. To say that Amis and "Hitch" don't have cultural influence (i.e. indirect influence over the thinking of policy makers and ordinary people) is to egregiously understate the power of not only Hitchens and Amis but of literature itself as a cultural force.

"Bad taste" my ass, it was racism, and not of the Michael Richards variety, but the kind that will have a lasting pernicious effect on religious tolerance within the UK and elsewhere.

I understand Mark's incredulity. Amis gave us Heavy Water, Hitchens gave us Why Orwell Matters, and now they both give us garbage.

Steven Augustine

"I wasn't going to comment, but I love this blog, and I'd hate to see its readership misrepresented."

You don't/can't speak for this blog's readership... you can only speak for yourself. As does anyone commenting. Even Mark.


Great post.


Most of these comments completely ignore what Bennett is saying. Its not that we shouldn't be able to have cartoons of Muhammad, or be able to criticize the ideology which fuels religious fundamentalism, but it is when the two are conflated, when the two are so easily, so insidiously conflated, that we have a problem.

There is a difference between criticizing certain 'virulent' ideological strains within a religion, and wondering (in public) whether the whole community of Muslims shouldn't be terrorized until they 'sort it out.' One can almost understand why Amis is saying this, but to make a statement like this suggests passing judgement on the whole group based on one (relatively minor) incident in the British capital.

And like WillisDyer says, the importance and influence of Hitchens and Amis, and the statements that they make, cannot be underestimated. In Foucauldian terms, their statements would be part of the formation of a post 9/11 discourse, a discourse which in my opinion is just this side of sanctioning all out war against Muslims. It is not stated as such, of course: instead, we are presented with various contingencies (i.e., Stephen's notion of Islam as a gender Apartheid, Amis' wish to save our Enlightenment project), contingencies which always make it seem like we are only reacting to what is going on - when in fact we are the ones who have most of the responsibility in what is going on. The absence of any political grounding here while making these statements is astonishing - as if these bombers operate in a vacuum of ahistorical, apolitical existence. Further, the rejoinder that "there is that wish isn't there" is nothing more than a nice pre-emption of any criticism one might have of what is being said. Amis can flatly fall back on his "thought experiment" clause and no one is harmed.

Finally, it isn't 'our' job to correct the patriarchal, homophobic, mysoginistic, sexist et al tendencies prevalent in Islam today. What should concern us, however, is the role the west has played historically in maintaining a cultural, imperial, and ideological hegemony over the middle east and most of the 'third world' - a hegemony which has arrested any sort of organic sorting out of these issues which might have come about otherwise.

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