Saturday, November 24, 2007

How to smear a writer

Does Sunny think David Landes is a racist?


"Portuguese intellectual shortcomings soon became a byword: thus Diogo do Couto, referring in 1603 to "the meanness and lack of curiosity of this our Portuguese nation"; and Francis Parry, the English envoy at Lisbon in 1670, observing that "the people are so little curious that no man knows more than what is merely necessary for him"; and the eighteenth-century English visitor Mary Brearley who remarked that "the bulk of the people were disinclined to independence of thought and, in all but a few instances, too much averse from intellectual activity to question what they had learned.

[...]

Portugal had become a backward, weak country" (The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, p. 135-136)

His attack on Martin Amis suggests he probably does.

He quotes Amis as saying "the impulse towards rational inquiry, is by now very weak in the rank and file of the Muslim male” quote. That's a generalisation but I don't think it is a racist one. It could be true or untrue but requires no particular hostility to Muslims. It is very similar to innumerable quotes that could be pulled from Landes' book. For example, "Portuguese intellectual shortcomings soon became a byword".

Sunny says that Amis' most offensive utterings were the following:


"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."

Sunny never links to the original interview from which these comments spring so I've had to do a bit of searching to get it. As a commenter on his Liberal Conspiracy post points out the actual quote starts with:



"There’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? – to say,"

These aren't Amis' recommendations, they're a guilty admission of thoughts that he regards as unacceptable. He is describing dark thoughts that civilised people control but that are not indicative of racism or any other quality worthy of condemnation. It is those who do not see them as problematic that we have to worry about.

Amis' crime, if he has committed one, is to be a literary figure without the depth of self-control expected of someone engaged in an intensely political debate. Sunny's only response to the commenter who pointed out the distortion was, essentially 'but Imams get taken out of context too'. That Sunny can be so brazen about his character assassination is disgusting.

Perhaps Imams also suffer Amis' fate sometimes, although often when Imams claim to have been taken out of context that turns out not to be the case, but I don't know of anyone who has actually defended the practice of taking people out of context.

The statement about demographics is also taken out of context. Sunny presents it as an appeal to nativist fears of being 'overrun'. Again, here's the introduction Bennett and Sunny miss out - from the same interview linked above:


"He and The Hitch were in Las Vegas the previous week, and shared their grim premonition that this could be the beginning of the end for Israel."

His concern about Muslim demographics isn't a generalised concern about "them" and "us" but a specific concern about the Western world's ability to defend Israel. He's concerned that demographic change will make that impossible. The preceding paragraph further sets that in context as part of a broader worry that the British set Israel up in an impossible position. Deep fears that the Muslim world are out to 'get' Israel can be attacked as unjustified but are not racist.

Racist is an unfortunate description to throw around. Just like anti-semitic and insane it is one that sticks to people and defies rebuttal. After all, it is an attack not on someone's arguments or even their interests. It is an attack on the inner workings of their mind, it alleges that their very soul is defective. There is no real way to open yourself up, to prove yourself a non-racist. The best anyone can really do is the "well, I've got lots of friends of other races" but that isn't allowed to stand. Friendly personal conduct, apparently, is no barrier to being deeply unpleasant in some larger way.

Accusing people of racism is a bankrupt and small-minded style of argument. It is a witch-hunting discourse that will favour those who don't express themselves, who shut up and then manoevre into positions of power after a career of quiet blandness. It is, in the deepest sense, anti-intellectual. It closes our minds.

9 comments:

Lord James-River said...

Accusing people of racism is a bankrupt and small-minded style of argument. It is a witch-hunting discourse that will favour those who don't express themselves, who shut up and then manoevre into positions of power after a career of quiet blandness. It is, in the deepest sense, anti-intellectual. It closes our minds.

I'm stealing this quote now!

shariq said...

Hi Matt. Just a couple of comments.

Firstly, there's something horribly ironic in Amis talking about 'rational inquiry' in the Muslim male, which in itself is his own pseudo-scientific/psychological explanation for jihadist terrorism.

Secondly, they might not be his own recommendations but you would expect them to be accompanied with some sort of sanity check. Its like saying that you can understand why someone is driven to suicide bombing in Israel, without adding that its still completely immoral and unjustified and should always be condemned and never be condoned.

Finally, I saw you posting something about Alan Dershowitz and the Oxford Union a while back. I don't know the particular details of that controversy but you should know that Dershowitz has condemned Norm Finkelstein as anti-semitic and self-hating and even worse, accused his mother of surviving the concentration camps by collaborating with the nazi's.

Matthew Sinclair said...

Shariq, I'll take your three arguments in order:

What’s so wrong with Amis’ argument? He's arguing that there isn't enough Enlightenment-style criticism within Islam. While that was a throwaway statement of that idea it has a lot of credibility.

He did attach a 'sanity check'! That's the sentence that Sunny cut out!

I don't see the relevance or function of an extended debate about the actions and merits of Alan Dershowitz. My only real experience of his work in detail surrounds the UCU boycott. I think he did well to confront it with appropriate ferocity. Beyond that I've no brief for Dershowitz.

Sunny said...

What’s so wrong with Amis’ argument? He's arguing that there isn't enough Enlightenment-style criticism within Islam. While that was a throwaway statement of that idea it has a lot of credibility.

Erm, this is patently rubbish. Firstly his attack is on "Muslim males", not Islam as a theology. You make the same mistake as Hitchens and McEwan in thinking this is somehow a theological debate. Generalising about half a billion people and essentially calling them stupid, based on very limited knowledge of a religious book is rather... stupid.

There is rather a lot of criticism and debate within Islamic theology. You and Amis are just completely oblivious to it. For an easily accessible source you could read Ali Eteraz's series on CIF.

That statement has credibility only with ignorant people. Feel free to include yourself in that category if you wish.

He did attach a 'sanity check'! That's the sentence that Sunny cut out!

That's not a sanity check. That was an admittance he suffers from urges akin to what happened to the American Japanese during WW2. If you admit to xenophobia, does that make you any less contemptible? I've added in the first line to that quote now... but it doesn't change anything because he describes an "urge".

Does the person expressing an "urge" to chuck homosexuals off a cliff, or take revenge for Muslim deaths in Iraq make it ok?

I don't have to smear Amis, his words speak for themselves.

Matthew Sinclair said...

Sunny,

"Erm, this is patently rubbish. Firstly his attack is on "Muslim males", not Islam as a theology. You make the same mistake as Hitchens and McEwan in thinking this is somehow a theological debate. Generalising about half a billion people and essentially calling them stupid, based on very limited knowledge of a religious book is rather... stupid."

He's alleging that there is a cultural problem within the Muslim world that is making it insufficiently susceptible to rational critiques. It's very similar to the quote from Landes (an absolutely mainstream economic history text) talking about Portugal that I included in this post. If you can't see the difference between that and 'calling people stupid' then you've lost all capacity for nuanced thought.

"That's not a sanity check. That was an admittance he suffers from urges akin to what happened to the American Japanese during WW2. If you admit to xenophobia, does that make you any less contemptible? I've added in the first line to that quote now... but it doesn't change anything because he describes an "urge"."

If you don't think there's an important difference between someone who wants to carry out these policies and someone who regards them as an ugly temptation then you've not just lost nuance, you've lost all moral bearings. A person doesn't have to be xenophobic to, in the face of the horrors Islamism inflicts on the world, sometimes think dark thoughts. They're xenophobic if they allow those dark thoughts to consume them or overpower their good judgement. You've provided no evidence Amis has, in any way, done that.

Matthew Sinclair said...

"There is rather a lot of criticism and debate within Islamic theology. You and Amis are just completely oblivious to it. For an easily accessible source you could read Ali Eteraz's series on CIF."

I'm well aware of debate within Islam. However, that kind of debate doesn't automatically have any bearing on the "rank and file". Just like debates over Western political philosophy don't necessarily affect the rank and file among Europeans. The question is the extent to which rational argument is appealed to within the broader debate.

It doesn't seem too much of a leap, in fact I've heard many reformist Muslims lament this, to say that rational inquiry is right now losing out in the Muslim world. That the impulse towards rational inquiry, the belief in rational inquiry itself is weak.

Sunny said...

He's alleging that there is a cultural problem within the Muslim world that is making it insufficiently susceptible to rational critiques.

He's alleging that all Muslim males are incapable of this. Do you see that as an acceptable generalisation... based on what premise to be exact?

They're xenophobic if they allow those dark thoughts to consume them or overpower their good judgement. You've provided no evidence Amis has, in any way, done that.

I've pointed out several examples where he's expressed these "dark thoughts". It seems you're one of the few left who seems to think that all this is innocent speculation and that our cuddly bear isn't actually making silly generalisations based on a topic (Islamic theology) of which he knows little about.

However, that kind of debate doesn't automatically have any bearing on the "rank and file".

Again, a silly statement to make given there is huge diversity within Muslims in the schools of thought they follow. It's not just all Sunni and Shia, there are also the Ismailis, Ahmadiyas, Sufis, Deobandis, Salafis, Tablighis etc etc. That is in addition to the cultural differences they have too.

You really are showing your ignorance. Your defence of Amis is so bad that it's not even worth carrying this conversation further.

Matthew Sinclair said...

"He's alleging that all Muslim males are incapable of this. Do you see that as an acceptable generalisation... based on what premise to be exact?"

No he isn't. "The impulse [...] is very weak" is clearly a generalisation and doesn't imply "all" Muslim males are "incapable" of anything. It implies that too many don't want to.

"I've pointed out several examples where he's expressed these "dark thoughts". It seems you're one of the few left who seems to think that all this is innocent speculation and that our cuddly bear isn't actually making silly generalisations based on a topic (Islamic theology) of which he knows little about."

All of your examples are misleading. None of them demonstrate any kind of racism.

"Again, a silly statement to make given there is huge diversity within Muslims in the schools of thought they follow. It's not just all Sunni and Shia, there are also the Ismailis, Ahmadiyas, Sufis, Deobandis, Salafis, Tablighis etc etc. That is in addition to the cultural differences they have too."

I know about the minor strands of Islam - I know a fair bit about certain strands like the Ismailis and less about others like the Salafis. They don't have a lot of bearing on this debate though. They are largely markers of ethnic division these days. How many Ismailis decided to become an Ismaili because of some rational agreement with their beliefs?

The real rational debates you'd be looking for are over issues like the relationships between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds, gender relations, law and order etc. etc. Amis argues, and I don't think this is unreasonable or racist - although it may be incorrect, that too few Muslims seek to apply rational inquiry in their search for answers to these questions.

"You really are showing your ignorance. Your defence of Amis is so bad that it's not even worth carrying this conversation further."

So, what was that you were saying about members of the "elite" being unwilling to defend their work in the blogosphere?

Also, if my mistakes are really based on ignorance why would you want to stop our debate? Surely that would make it more worthwhile as you will easily be able to change my mind quickly by correcting my ignorance?

edmund said...

exaclty matt all these examples arne't racist- they're islmophobic wat the most which is no more racist than hating socialism or capitalism.

Having said that I think "rational inquiry" is a poor way of putting about putting it and your last point show that . How many people apply rational debate to their views on cultures,gender equality(the second i bet very few people could actualy explain their diasgremetns with a al quada or rural pakistani view rationally) ect in the western world- not many and i supect the average muslim is at not far off being as likely to the problem is

a) the lack of pluralism a different point though superficially similar.

b) wrong conclusions

c) the power of conspiracy theories the number of muslims who think the jews were behind 9/11 ect