No sweat at all

I agree with Michel Houellebecq, up to a point.

Atomised became a bestseller at home and abroad. It won the Prix Novembre, though it missed out on the Goncourt. The publication of Platform saw him prosecuted for incitement to racial hatred, after describing Islam as ‘the most idiotic religion’ in a promotional interview. (His exact words were: ‘La religion le plus con, c’est quand même l’Islam.’) He argued that he was entitled to criticise Islam, and that he had never conflated Muslims with Arabs; he was cleared; the book sold 200,000 copies in two weeks.

In any case, Islam’s the shittiest religion of all. Now: consider Islam as a body of ideas about the source, meaning and ultimate purpose of human life, intertwined with a body of practice and ritual, both of which are incarnated in a community of believers. In short, consider Islam as a religion like Christianity. In that perspective, Houellebecq’s acquittal was well-deserved; indeed, in that perspective I don’t see that the remark raises any significant issues. We might disagree with it profoundly; we might see it as hostile and divisive; we might see it as counter-productive to broader political projects with which we sympathise. All of this is beside the point: religions – like other ideologies and bodies of community-based practice – cannot be protected against disrespect, and it’s no kind of radicalism to insist that they should be.

On the other hand: consider Islam as the body of practice and belief which defines a minority community, whose members are born into that community and can no more cease to be members than I can cease to be English (and part-Welsh). In short, consider Islam as a religion like Judaism. If it’s appropriate to consider the Muslim community as a minority ethnicity, then it’s equally appropriate for the state to protect that community’s identity against slurs like Houellebecq’s – and for radicals to protest against its failure to do so, in line with the ruling classes’ eternal divide-and-rule strategy.

I don’t think there’s a right answer to this question, although I do think that for conceptualisations of Islam to develop away from the ethnic perspective and towards the contemporary Christian model would be profoundly desirable. All of which means that we need to make things more complicated and qualified rather then less – even if it means our writing becomes less bracing:

There’s little point in denying that he has some profoundly fascistic tendencies (the biography reveals that he is, or at least was, a committed racist). Like Céline, he’s a right-wing misanthrope who has produced a genuinely perceptive and resonant picture of French society – obscenified and isolating. He’s also a careless writer (in his view the modern world doesn’t deserve anything better). His fiction is often crude and repetitive. His observations, bracing at first, seem specious and grating when repeated, in almost identical form, in novel after novel.

Theo Tait’s conceding too much here. I realise that Damn. braces, but is frankly-expressed racism and misanthropy really bracing? We’re dealing here, I think, with a kind of perverse inversion of the role Richard plays for his readers, and Tim for his: That stuff you read in the paper today? It’s all a load of rubbish. You know what’s really important… In Houellebecq’s case what comes under fire is not so much what you read in the paper as what you think, and the flattery of the reader is rather indirect, but the basic dynamic – a kind of antinomian evangelism – is very similar. Don’t believe them – you know what’s really going on… It’s agitprop, essentially, promoting simplification and blame. (The two go together: if the issues are so clear, why are we told they’re so complex and difficult? Because they‘re idiots, or liars, or idiots unwittingly serving liars, or…) As literature, this kind of thing is contemptible. As political writing it’s not much better.

So I agree with Martin Kettle (up to a point):

Too many haters of capitalism and the United States still cram everything into the frame of untruth and self-deception that says my enemy’s enemy is still my friend because, even if he blows up my family on the tube, murders my colleagues on the bus or threatens to behead me for publishing a drawing, he is still at war with Bush, Blair and Berlusconi.

The all-embracing anti-imperialist mindset is a reality on the Left today; it’s a distraction at best, at worst positively dangerous. Ironically, the alternative perspective Kettle appears to propose – one wiped clean of any allusion to socialism, which has supposedly been proved to be a utopian daydream – is not much of an improvement. Nothing in Kettle’s piece is more revealing than the point when, after discussing his Communist Party background, he refers briefly to ‘other’ socialist currents; these are immediately qualified as ‘democratic and moderate’, i.e. reformist. As a post-war Communist, Kettle comes from a group which identified the revolutionary hopes of socialism with Stalinism – that weird combination of great-power realpolitik, managerialist Gleichschaltung and Fabian gradualism – and systematically denied that any rival claimant to the ‘socialist’ name deserved it. Even now, Kettle seems genuinely unaware of the possibility of being left of Stalin.

There is, in other words, no alternative; faced with the collapse of actually-existing socialism, Leftists must either live a lie or abandon it and embrace the more progressive elements of liberal capitalism. And if the latter course involves finding a home from home on the non-socialist Left, so much the better. (An awful lot of old CPers have ended up with New Labour; I suppose one authoritarian, bureaucratic party that blots out the rest of the Left is as good as another.)

The problem with Michel Houellebecq is less that he’s a racist than that he thinks simplistically and encourages over-simplification in others, erasing qualifications and concealing viable alternatives. Unfortunately, he’s not the only one.

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