Monday, December 10, 2007

Not really about the Amis Affair

From Shiraz Socialist, which I've at other times found insightful, I came across this article by Martin Amis, entitled "No, I am not a racist." I'm afraid I'm not as up on the Amis/Eagleton affair as a lot of others. Perhaps because it's played out mainly in the British press, or perhaps because I'm not well read enough. In any case, at least one aspect of the article is worth discussing.

What I found most striking about Amis's defense is that he tells an anecdote about how his father first introduced him to a black man, how he first learned about diversity. He goes on to quote himself on his anti-racist views. Given that Amis (along with his father!) has been, as I understand, characterized as a racist this story and those quotes weigh in as evidence of his overall character. But he precedes them with, "Well, this is what's new about the new racism: it isn't racist." If his story is a defense of the statement he's been criticized for, then it's rather strange that it has nothing to do with what he said in that statement:

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 letting 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.
Amis is right to point out, that statement doesn't actually advocate discrimination, and anyone who has said that he has advocated that (based on that statement) is clearly wrong on a simple factual matter. The honesty is admirable, even, given that some people are sure to take the statement for more than it is. And since I can't honestly claim to having gone through my life without ever having said or thought anything racist, I'm not certainly going to criticize Amis for his honesty. The urge may well be there. I'd be surprised if only a few people shared Amis's urge, and we certainly ought to acknowledge such impulses so that we can address them. But it does strike me that the statement ties Islamism (or Jihadism, or terrorism masquerading as Islam, or takfirism, or whatever you want to call it) to the whole of Islam in a damaging way. I do think it's racist. He writes that his urge "not racist but simply retaliatory," but I'm curious how he selects the group (which is not limited to radical, violent fundamentalists) to retaliate against.

If Amis is opposed to racism (in principle), if he's written and worked against racism (as he understands it), if he's opposed to Islamophobia even (strange that his proof that he isn't Islamophobic is about how he learned not to hate black people) that doesn't make his statement less racist. It's completely backwards to characterize a statement by who utters it. I'm sure many awful racists have uttered, "My, what a wonderfully blue sky" during their lives - such a statement isn't racist, regardless of who says it. And Amis's statement is racist regardless of who said it.

Rather than looking into the hearts of people to determine what it is that they've said, as if our ears weren't sufficient, we ought to look simply at and debate what people have actually said. When we assume that such a discussion revolves around someone's character, as if each of us were so one-dimensional that everything we've ever done or said must be equally racist/anti-racist, we lose sight of a far more important discussion of what sort of statement actually hurts people.

In this world, as a Jew, I've increasingly found myself trying to explain to various people that something they said hurt me because it echoes the same lies that have led to the deaths of too many Jews in history. Too often the response has been that I must be lying since that other person "isn't a racist." Of course, how could they understand what's hurtful to Jews - how could they even know if they're racist - if they start exclude everyone who disagrees (especially Jews, who are the ones most likely to express their disagreement) with them from the discussion on those grounds.

1 comment:

Jim Denham said...

I think the point (as you acknowledge), is that none of us go through life without a racist thought; as Amis explains it, his thoughts/comments, in the immediate aftermath of an Islamist outrage in London, were more "vengeful" than "racist". nevertheless, they were foolish and ill-advised comments. It was obvious, even at the time, that they were not meant to be taken seriously. The point is, that those (amianly middle-class, white, leftie/liberals) who are determined to stop any and all criticism of Islam and of Islamism (two quite different ideologies, of course), have leaped on this: I think the serious Left should:
1/ Criticise Amis, not for "thinking aloud", but for not thinking through the possible consequences of what he said;
2/ Defend him against the preposterous charges of "racism" now being levelled against him: they are clearly nonsense (Amis *does* have a good and consistent record of anti-racism), and they also devalue the struggle against *real* racism.