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."
In the only other discussion of North Korea, Bush indeed shouts, "I loathe Kim Jong Il!" The rest of the quote, which Amis leaves out, goes like this: "I've got a visceral reaction to this guy, because he is starving his people. And I have seen intelligence of those prison camps--they're huge--that he uses to break up families, and to torture people. . . ."
"[Bush] wondered how the civilized world could stand by and coddle the North Korean president as he starves his people," wrote Woodward, before quoting Bush again on the subject of his loathing. "It is visceral," said Bush. "Maybe it's my religion, maybe it's my--but I feel passionate about this."
What the president feels passionate about is not how many angels can fit on the head of a pin, but the utter wrongness of Kim Jong Il's murderous governance. Did Amis even read Woodward's book? Obviously he skimmed it about as closely as he did Frum's.
Going over Amis's eruptively styled essay, one finds that it is Amis, and not Bush, who has the religion problem. More precisely, his problem is bigotry, and at its hateful center is ignorance.
This viciousness for religion carries Amis into the most bizarre arguments: "We are obliged to accept the fact that Bush is more religious than Saddam: of the two presidents, he is, in this respect, the more psychologically primitive."
Don't you love that "of the two presidents"--as if their offices were equally legitimate and justly held? And how about the eye-popping premise that religious belief equals psychological primitiveness? It only makes it more shocking to know that Amis recently wrote a book about Stalin, the great atheist and murderous tyrant.
But let us watch as the celebrated novelist shares with the world his meticulously culled understanding of America and Christianity:
"All US presidents--and all presidential candidates--have to be religious or have to pretend to be religious. More specifically, they have to subscribe to 'born again' Christianity."
Won't someone call candidates Joe Lieberman and Howard Dean and let them know? We should also inform Michael Dukakis. Reagan's unenthusiastic Christian faith was "generic," according to Paul Kengor, the author of a new book on Reagan's faith. And those Romanist Kennedys, too, should probably be made aware of this iron-clad law of American public life.
"Unbelievably," says Amis in the next graph, "born-again doctrine insists that Israel must be blindly supported, not because it is the only semi-democracy in that crescent, but because it's due to host the second coming."
Indeed, it is unbelievable--because it's not true. Belief in the second coming is not the basis of American support for Israel. All presidential candidates are not born again, and America does not "blindly" support Israel. Rather than argue policy, Amis shows he is simply, irrationally, and irretrievably incensed over America's "unnatural" support of Israel.
"Unnatural," it must be made clear, is Amis's own word.
Barbrometer: three Barbra Streisands
Grader's Comment: His research is casually performed, to say the least, and his argument obscure, as if there are no lengths to which he won't go to out-hate all the other Bush-haters. Also, there is something Strangelovian about his use of "unnatural." It makes one picture Amis spitting at his computer while he types. Indeed, that term alone plus the Churchill business suggests a rating of, say, four Streisands--but we can't quite ignore all the excellent writing Amis has done elsewhere. Then again, the Stardumb rating is hardly a comprehensive--say, "theologically" perfect--form of assessment. Who knows what grade God himself might give Amis?
David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.