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Stardumb: Martin Amis

The great writer is also an anti-American, religious bigot. Who knew?

10:30 AM, Mar 21, 2003 • By DAVID SKINNER
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STARDUMB QUIZ: Which famous writer is speaking in the interview below, which took place on September 4, 2002 and focused on the then-upcoming war in Iraq?

Interviewer: Do you see as some members of the Bush administration see parallels with the 1930s and appeasement?

Famous Writer: I can't say that I do. I can't say that I do, I can imagine an argument that pictures Saddam Hussein as the Churchill today. It is all upside down.

Quick, who was it that compared Saddam Hussein to Winston Churchill? Susan Sontag? Noam Chomsky? Simon Schama? Nope, it was Martin Amis in an interview with Gavin Esler of the BBC. (Yes, I do know the answer was in the headline.)

Hold on fans of "London Fields" and "The Rachel Papers," it only gets worse. In an essay in the London Guardian on March 4, Amis made several statements whose deeply offensive anti-American contents beg to be aired and, sadly, fact-checked. Curiously, the essay does not appear in Nexis, nor can it be retrieved from the Guardian's own website, though in both cases one finds several references to the original work. Now before rushing to the judgment that someone has shoved it down the memory hole, please consider that it may be the case that Amis has retained reprint rights. A query sent to the Guardian had not been answered when this article was posted.

Stardumb Hypothesis Number 7: The Stardummy teaches us that confidence is always in danger of becoming self-esteem. Thus a byproduct of accomplishment is mistaken for a general characteristic that applies to any and all situations, making it easier for laziness to set in.

Onto the meat. Amis, you will have gathered, is not too keen on the American-led war against Iraq or, for that matter, American politicians. Exploring his often opaque feelings about the war, he discusses the famous Bush phrase "Axis of Evil":

"The notion of the 'axis of evil' has an interesting provenance. In early drafts of the President's speech the 'axis of evil' was the 'axis of hatred,' axis having been settled on for its associations with the enemy in the second world war. . . . [And] 'axis of hatred' it was going to be, until the tide turned towards 'axis of evil.' 'Axis of Evil' echoed Reagan's 'evil empire.' It was more alliterative. It was also, according to President Bush, 'more theological.'"

Key phrase here: "according to President Bush." The problem is that it wasn't.

Amis is clearly relying on the story of the phrase's origins as told in David Frum's book, "The Right Man." Or perhaps he is relying on a review of the book that emphasizes the word "theological" without making it clear that Frum doesn't put the word in quotes. Frum doesn't specifically attribute the term to anyone. Rather it appears to be Frum's own word.

Page 238 of "The Right Man" reads: "The speech was now nearing completion. To my amazement, my Iraq memo was incorporated almost verbatim. [Chief White House speechwriter Mike] Gerson wanted to use the theological language that Bush had made his own since September 11--so 'axis of hatred' became 'axis of evil.'"

There we have it. Frum used the word. It is not indicated that Gerson used the word, and there is even less suggestion that Bush may have used it.

Amis's error wouldn't matter much if he didn't stake most of his complaint on the president's "theological" tendencies. "Why," he asks with great exasperation, "in our current delirium of faith and fear, would Bush want things to become more theological rather than less theological?"

Amis continues: "The answer is clear enough, in human terms, to put it crudely, it makes him feel easier about being intellectually null. He wants geopolitics to be less about intellect and more about gut-instincts and beliefs--because he knows he's got them. One thinks here of Bob Woodward's serialised anecdote: Asked by Woodward about North Korea, Bush jerked forward saying, 'I loathe Kim Jong Il!' Bush went on to say that the execration sprang from his instincts, adding, apparently in surprised gratification, that it might be to do with his religion. Whatever else happens, we can infallibly expect Bush to get more religious: more theological."

Putting aside Amis's unfair caricature of Bush and unjustified characterization of Bush's thinking, it is worth focusing on the Woodward anecdote. It says a lot about Bush and a lot about Amis.

The references to North Korea in Woodward's book "Bush at War" make one thing clear: What the president loathes about Kim Jong Il does not concern religion, but the value of human life. "Bush had seen satellite pictures of starvation, torture and prison camp brutality on a massive scale in North Korea," it says in one passage concerning North Korea. Bush is then quoted mentioning God, but only to say that "the values of freedom, the human condition, and mothers loving their children" are "God-given values."