Martin Amis & Chris Hitchens: Vicious Racism Concealed by a British Accent
Martin Amis' new book, The Second Plane, is worth discussing only as a symptom of the plague of British right-wing ("Tory") rhetoric popping up in American conservative discourse. The American right wing, desperate for articulate hate mongers, has taken to importing Tory polemicists to stir the base up against the Muslim/Arab "enemy."
In mealymouthed America, where most people are shocked by anything stronger than "You know what? I'm not sure I'm comfortable with that," the Tory writer's comfortable, familiar stance toward hatred can make an undistinguished hack seem like a powerful voice. That's why Christopher Hitchens is now the darling of right-wing America. Our homegrown hate mongers, like Ann Coulter, are so painfully amateurish and ham-handed that Hitchens, simply by applying the old Tory hater's kit, can seem like a master.
Apparently, even educated American editors are suckers for imported British bile. That's the only way to explain the fact that many of the essays collected in The Second Plane were originally published by the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine. So, more as a public-health warning than a literary review, here's a look at Tory rhetoric as exemplified by Martin Amis.
Tory discourse has only two topics: hatred of the new and foreign, and grief for the old and familiar. The object of its hatred changes its name from generation to generation, from Papist to Jew to Irish to German to Russian to Arab; but the methods used to vilify the currently demonized alien are remarkably stable over the generations. Every device Amis uses to vilify Arabs and Muslims can be found, aimed at other targets, in Tory literature going back several decades.
Martin learned the poison-pen trade at home, from his father, novelist Kingsley Amis. Like Hitchens, Kingsley started out by calling himself a leftist, but a leftist who hated almost everything about the left except that fact that it shared his hatred for his social superiors. Once his novel Lucky Jim became a hit and he joined the elite, Kingsley discovered that he had no further grudges with the Tories and spent the rest of his life vilifying women, non-whites, and anyone else who failed to meet his standards of English-ness.
To American readers, the targets of Tory xenophobia can seem bizarre, even comic. For instance, in Lucky Jim, Amis Senior rails against Italian cooking, denouncing olive oil at some length as a vile "butter substitute." Keith Waterhouse, another Tory writer of that era, devotes half a page in one of his novels to a similar sermon against pizza. This obsession with Italian food, which was just coming into fashion in Britain, suggests an important difference between British and American right-wing writing: While most American conservative rhetoric pays lip service to "melting pot" rhetoric, British writers are openly xenophobic, assailing all foreign influences, whether in cookery or movies. Hitchens, for example, took a bizarre detour in one of his screeds to denounce the unfair presentation of medieval English royalty in Braveheart.
And unlike most American rightists, British Tories are always defeatists, convinced their cause is lost, paralyzed by nostalgia for an imaginary golden age or fighting a rearguard action in defense of a doomed, yet superior culture. In Lord of the Rings terms, England is Gondor, Mordor is the alien (the Arab/Muslim, at the moment), and without a Frodo-level game-saver, we're doomed. You can hear this sort of wretched whine even in pop music, as when Morrissey moans, "We are the last truly British people you will ever know." (Though in an amusing twist, Morrissey later came out of the ethnic closet and admitted he was Irish.)
It's not that psychiatrists don't pass out enough Prozac across the Atlantic. There's a very sound basis for Tory gloom: Britain lost the 20th century. Take a look at a map of the world circa 1900 and you'll see what a devastating fall England has suffered. In 1900, most of the Tropics were colored British pink. Now all that's left is Britain itself, a wet little island.
The logical conclusion for the Tory, looking back on that great fall, is that the 20th century was a horrible mistake. By contrast, America seemed to be doing very well right up to Sept. 11, 2001 (though some would place the catastrophe a bit earlier, on Nov. 5, 2000, or Jan. 20, 2001). Only after 9/11 and the Iraq catastrophe did right-wing America feel a doomed affinity for Tory gloom and hatred.
So now Red-State America is in the mood to hear that the whole modern world is a big mistake. That was exactly the argument of Paul Johnson, popular right-wing historian of the Thatcher era. But since he couldn't say outright that the natives were better off when ruled from London, he resorted to literary techniques to make anti-Imperialist heroes like Gandhi into villains in his big Thatcher-era pop history book, Modern Times. Johnson showed Tory writers how to defend the indefensible (imperialism, colonial massacres) using literary devices rather than argument. So although he can't really say outright that everything was better when London ruled India, he devotes a strange amount of space to slandering the sexual practices and toilet habits of Gandhi and the suspect lack of sexual enthusiasm of former U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold.
Johnson's career as moral enforcer ended in the usual way, when the part-time girlfriend who'd been whipping his bare bottom for years grew tired of listening to Johnson talk about the sanctity of marriage and his love for his wife. She took a page out of Johnson's book by selling her lurid story to the tabloids. Johnson's response was a classic: "We are all sinners. I know I am." By that time, of course, everybody knew.
Martin Amis shows himself a worthy disciple of Johnson by using sexual slander as the main persuasive device in "Terror and Boredom: The Dependent Mind," an essay on the life and works of Islamist Sayyid Qutb. Amis implies that 9/11 came about because of a murky shipboard sexual incident involving Qutb a half-century ago. In this typical piece of Tory slander, Islamism has nothing to do with real political issue but is the product of one man's sexual problems: "Promptly giving up hope of coming across a woman of 'sufficient' cleanliness, (Qutb) resolved to stick to the devil he knew: virginity."
Stretching the notion of sexual maladjustment as the root of all Islamic evil, Amis makes one of his most unintentionally funny points by contrasting a crowd of dark, threatening Pakistani youths with normal, healthy, drugged, drunk and horny Western youth. It seems these Pakistani kids harassed one of Amis' friends. We're not told what the friend was doing on their turf. In Tory rhetoric, the white intruder is always perfectly innocent, and any hostility shown him, even when he's in Imperial uniform and bayoneting civilians, is mere unjustified rudeness. Amis' comparison of these vile non-white kids to their wonderful Western counterparts has to be read to be believed:
"At this time of day, their equivalents in the great conurbations of Europe and America, could expect to ease their not very sharp frustrations by downing a lot of alcohol, by eating large meals with no dietary restrictions by downing yet more alcohol as well as additional stimulants and relaxants, by jumping up and down for several hours on strobe-lashed dance floors, and (in a number of cases) by having galvanic sex with near-perfect strangers."
There's so much sheer nonsense here that it's difficult to pick the most absurd phrase, though I confess a personal fondness for that wacky, out-of-left-field slap Amis gives, in passing, to Muslim dietary laws. Yes, clearly the reason that Western youth don't fly jets into buildings is that they can eat "large meals with no dietary restrictions." Does that put Orthodox Jews on the no-boarding list?
What makes this passage so typical of Amis, and so godawful, is that it's written in ponderous, 18th century prose, as if Doctor Johnson had decided to write in favor of ecstasy-soaked raves. Adding to the comedy, Amis then sprinkles his leaden prose with neologisms that would have had the good Doctor howling on the floor.
Most writers would giggle at a word like "conurbations" and settle for something ordinary, like "cities." Not Amis. Most writers would flinch when reading over a first draft containing phrases like "their not very sharp frustrations," "strobe-lashed" and my favorite, "galvanic sex" preceded by the earnest parenthesis "(in a number of cases)." I can't read that phrase "galvanic sex" without thinking of high-school biology and jumping frog legs, and I still wonder whether "in a number of cases" (how many exactly, Marty?) means that some unlucky Western youth don't get to have sex at all, or merely that their couplings don't rate the adjective "galvanic." I'm also a little worried by "near-perfect." Golly, was there an embarrassingly placed mole? Tan lines?
Tory writers always go a little crazy when sex comes up. One of Amis' most distinguished predecessors in the use of sexual slander against the Left is C.S. Lewis. Lewis knew very little about the modern world -- or women, or sex -- except that he was against the lot. So rather than research the topic and risk learning something, he resorted to novelistic technique, peopling his anti-modern science-fiction fables with homophobic caricatures like the sadistic nurse Hardcastle, a socialist monster who delights in putting out her cigars on the heroine's breasts.
Torture has always been the big sexual thrill in Tory polemical fiction. It's always attributed to the evil alien, whether a Chinese dealer in white slaves, a sadistic Prussian officer, or, as in Martin Amis' story "In the Palace of the End," a thinly disguised version of Uday, Saddam Hussein's son. In this sample of Amis' tour of Uday's pleasure palace, Amis offers the reader an entirely imaginary catalogue of depravity, including pedophilia, sadism and bestiality:
I said, "What was in that sack?"
Earlier that morning I had spent an abnormally uncomfortable half-hour yelling at a suspect while a blood-steeped canvas mailbag jerked and jumped around the cubicle floor. The scream it emitted put one in mind of a boiling kettle. "Yes," he said, "A severe measure. The sack contained some starving animals plus the suspect's 3-year-old daughter." "So I imagined. But wasn't there something unusual about the animals?" "Not in themselves. You know -- 'bats and cats and rats.' But the vet said they'd been overstarved. So he gave them all a shot. Amphetamine. A very stubborn case."A 3-year-old girl tortured to death by being tied in a sack with drugged vermin, screaming like "a boiling kettle" -- some might call this the sickest child porn they've ever read, but the New Yorker, America's most venerable literary magazine, saw fit to publish it.
The funny thing is, Tory propagandists hate America themselves. Until he was bribed to prop up Bush, Christopher Hitchens spewed the usual Tory loathing for the United States, based in resentment of the usurpers who took over Britain's imperial role. Mark Steyn, Tory darling of the neocons, once wrote an article for the Sunday Telegraph, a Tory rag, titled "The United States of Losers and Bozos," chortling over America's bungled response to the terrorist bomb at the Atlanta Olympic Games. There's a very strong whiff of this delight in American misfortune in Amis' title essay, "The Second Plane," as when he chuckles: "The Pentagon is a symbol, and the WTC is, or was, a symbol." Yes, "or was." Thank you for clarifying that, for rubbing the past tense in the reader's face. Reading that title essay, one veers between shock at the sheer awfulness of the writing, to disgust at Amis' delight in the gory details of an American icon being destroyed.
The appalling prose style is set in the first sentence of the book: "It was the advent of the Second Plane sharking in low over the Statue of Liberty." That loud, clanking metaphor, "sharking in," is classic Amis, the sort of thing first-year creative writing students consider great writing until they hear the giggles of their classmates.
Another classic first-year prose technique is the use of religious terminology, like "advent," in describing extreme violence. Violence and the Sacred, as first-years have been taught for generations; it's the formula set in hard-boiled detective prose, except that Amis is playing a Naked Gun narration over a rather larger murder scene than usual.
Sheer nerve is Amis' strength, the kind that lets an author do a Lt. Frank Drebin voiceover of a catastrophe. And clearly, sheer nerve will carry you a long way, especially with an audience as gullible as the editorial staff of New Yorker -- which actually published this trash.
Sometimes the stupidity of Amis' assertions is so blatant that one can't see how any reader, no matter how tone-deaf or logic-challenged, could let them pass. For example, what are we supposed to make of Amis' solemn claim that "the Second Plane meant the end of everything"? How about, "No it didn't"? And what dozing copy editor passed on this clunker: "For us, its glint was the worldflash of a coming future"? Just read that sentence over a few times, savor its rottenness. The first thing you notice, of course, is the showy, clumsy metaphor "worldflash," one of those neologisms whose difficulty is supposed to pass as innovation. Dazzled by this high-profile clunker, you might miss my favorite part of the sentence, "a coming future." Yes, that's what futures tend to do, isn't it? Come, I mean. As far as I can see, there is no reason on earth to add "coming" to "future" unless you're (a) none too bright and (b) being paid by the word.
Still on the very first page of the book, we learn that "Flight 175 was an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (capitals in original) aimed at (America's) innocence."
Innocence? How, exactly, does a Manhattan office block stand for "innocence"? The World Trade Center could be said to stand for many admirable things, like drive, daring and ambition -- but innocence? And what are we to make of Amis' pronouncement that the WTC attacks were "the apotheosis of the postmodern era -- the era of images and perceptions. Wind conditions were also favorable"? Wind conditions were favorable for postmodernism? A nice sunny day with variable interpretations and occasional showers of vaporized concrete?
Look closely at that passage, and you can see how crude and provincial Amis' prose really is. As usual, he starts with a misapplied religious term, "apotheosis," followed by secondhand, dated seminar jargon: "the postmodern era -- the era of images and perceptions." Baudrillard himself, the old fraud, would cringe at such a simplistic parroting of his catchphrases. Is Amis really so ignorant that he thinks previous eras lacked iconic images of cataclysmic events? Remember the Maine? The Plague? The Crucifixion? I seem to recall that those pre-postmoderns had something of a knack for capturing great death scenes.
Viewed as literature, The Second Plane is utterly worthless bombast. It doesn't make any sense, and isn't even really meant to make any sense. It's simply hysterical funeral rhetoric, and there was a lot of it in the aftermath of 9/11. That's understandable. What's not so easy to understand, or forgive, is that the editors of America's leading journals saw fit to publish this trash, and that even now, seven years later, American reviewers are overawed by this grotesque collage of bombast, defeatism, hate-mongering and sadomasochistic pornography.
John Dolan is an editor of the Moscow-based English-language alternative paper, The eXile. He is the author of, most recently, Pleasant Hell.